Why China Obsesses Over 'The Walking Dead'

AMC's Zombie Drama Captures Online Fans, Creates Opportunity for Brand Tie-ins

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Zombie apocalypse, it seems, has universal appeal.

'The Walking Dead'
'The Walking Dead' Credit: Gene Page/AMC

AMC's "The Walking Dead" is hugely popular in the United States, but it's also proven a niche hit on China's leading online video site, Youku. It has more than 100 million views for the recently concluded third season -- an average of 6.8 million views per episode. Though that's a small figure considering China's huge online population, the show has attracted an audience multinational marketers highly covet: well-educated professionals in tier-one cities.

"The number of users who like American shows and the stickiness of the American shows are both increasing," said Maggie Xiong, director-media development at Youku's parent company, Youku-Tudou, who handles international TV-content acquisition. American TV shows are the fastest-growing content category at Youku, with page views quadrupling between September 2012 and January 2013.

The video site, which began as a platform for user-generated content, started building its library of licensed U.S. TV programs in 2010. Youku has purchased rights to 33 shows so far this year, including "The Vampire Diaries," "Modern Family," "Pretty Little Liars," "Revenge" and "2 Broke Girls." Youku spent $118.3 million on content acquisition in 2012, according to the company's financial results.

There are several reasons for American shows' growing popularity, said Ms. Xiong, who makes acquisitions based on factors such as online-search queries, media coverage and popularity of actors. Production quality tends to be better, and the rising popularity of Hollywood films has led to more interest in American TV content. Also, "China has strict media controls. ... Relatively speaking, American programming has a lot of different types of themes and plots," she said.

For marketers, online broadcasts of American shows can be a way to reach a highly desirable demographic that's difficult to target through traditional media, said Tony Chen, president of Group M Interaction China. 

Brands can extend the influence of product placements in the original production, he said. Also, passionate fans create communities on online bulletin boards, still a highly popular discussion forum in China. "It's not just when [the audience] watches the TV drama, but when they are discussing with their friends or interacting with other fans, there's also opportunity for the marketer to engage," Mr. Chen said. "There are millions of fans for certain TV series."

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