So alluring is this audience that marketers have been paying
between $200,000 and $260,000 for an ad package surrounding the
program and its repeat broadcasts, and AMC has gone out in the
"scatter" market seeking as much as $375,000 for the same
inventory. That last price is more than advertisers are willing to pay for ABC's "Modern Family"
or even this coming season of Fox's "American Idol."
If you were an executive at a broadcast network, you might well
let out the kind of blood-curdling scream you hear from hapless
"Walking Dead" characters who run into the show's zombies.
Why? Because, unlike so many other convention-defying programs
that have cropped up on cable over the years, there is simply no
way CBS, NBC, or even rule-breaking Fox can adopt many "Dead"
When the salty language found in gritty dramas such as "The
Shield" became the talk of the living-room screen, ABC could
counter with language in "NYPD Blue" and NBC could allow Tina Fey
and friends to run a sketch on "30 Rock" about a fictional show
called "MILF Island." When blood ran on "The Sopranos," CBS could
allow a little more gore into the opening dead-body scenes on
Simply put, however, there's little upside for ABC or its
bretheren to run scenes in which people are decapitated or beheaded
-- usually the norm in "Walking Dead." Time Warner may
allow such fare to surface in the panels of its DC Comics, but it's
hard to imagine the media company giving the nod to such stuff on
CW's "Vampire Diaries," let alone "Gossip Girl." Heck, it may even
be too risky for the company's broad-based cable outlets like TNT
"Walking Dead" is also a success despite its lack of support
from many major TV advertisers. Ad buyers and other executives
acknowledge that conservative marketers who make laundry detergent,
toothpaste, or salad dressing fear shows like "Walking Dead,"
because they often draw scrutiny from high-minded, vocal advocacy
groups. A scene in the finale showed two of the drama's heroes
prying bones from a freshly killed zombie to use as knives in a
fight; this is anathema to anyone who hopes to leave their young
child in front of the TV set for even half a moment.
Already, KFC found an ad message in a recent episode of "The
Walking Dead" to be in unappetizing proximity to -- immediately following -- a scene in which zombies
gather around a meal made of human being, still burbling with
blood. A KFC spokesman has said that the placement was
"unfortunate" and that the marketer has "taken steps" to avoid a
All that is why AMC runs loads of movie and video-game ads
during "Walking Dead" and features Hyundai vehicles in
the show's scenes, but still can only look forward to a day when
Procter & Gamble
finds the program an appropriate venue for the promotion of
There are so many reasons -- at least to an old-school way of
thinking -- that this show should not even be getting the numbers
it does. This fall it competed on a TV night saturated with popular
and high-quality fare including CBS's "The Good Wife," Showtime's
"Homeland," HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," NBC's "Sunday Night
Football," ABC's "Revenge" and Fox's "Family Guy." With its
multiple screenings, you'd think its audience would be more
fragmented, but in fact the bulk of viewers tune in for the first
airing Sundays at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. central for the kiddies!).
And have we mentioned the endlessly depressing story line? This
is a program in which the protagonists never enjoy victory, a
pre-teen racks up an appalling body count and a survivor practices
giving C-sections on zombies. It could be argued whether the show's
title refers are the undead -- or the poor, ground-down
unfortunates who must try to coexist with them. That's not exactly
the life-affirming fabric out of which everything from "Green
Acres" to even "24" have been woven.
But wherever the broadcast networks can find a way to ape "The
Walking Dead," they are likely, eventually, to try. This may not be
the most-watched show on TV, but it is watched the most by the
consumers advertisers say they want desperately. If a cable program
can reach this many 18-to-49ers, you can bet your DVD boxed set of
"Friends" that the broadcasters will seek to find ways to import
some of its appeal. If they succeed, "The Walking Dead" will have
marked the start of another shift in the tone of content on TV.
You could make the case that NBC's "Revolution," a series about
people living in a post-apocalyptic world without electrical power,
marks an early stab at trying to bottle some of the essence of
"Walking Dead" for a more mainstream crowd.
If "Walking Dead" can do this in 2012, who's to say what type of
programming will be all the rage in 2020?
Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV
Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and
changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.