When a show about the walking dead on basic cable beats every network show in the ratings demographic that advertisers care most about, you have to wonder who the real zombies are.
A zombie, after all, is something that continues to roam, and tries to devour all in its path even though its natural life is over — a description that does not sound that far-fetched when it comes to broadcast networks.
During its run last fall, “The Walking Dead” was the highest-rated show among viewers 18 to 49, the most-sought age group, with a bigger audience than network winners like “The Big Bang Theory,” “American Idol,” “The Voice” and “Modern Family.”
Now the zombies are back for the second half of the show’s third season, and they continue to gnaw on everything in their path, including the broadcast networks’ historical claim to being the only place to find a mass audience. Three weeks ago, the zombies owned Sunday night, attracting 7.7 million viewers in the 18 to 49 range, more than any broadcast show in the land.
It gets better (or worse, if you are a network). AMC has a spinoff chat show about zombies called “The Talking Dead,” and even that is making waves. That same Sunday three weeks ago, “The Talking Dead” drew almost 2.8 million viewers ages 18 to 49, trumping NBC not just for the night, but for all of February.
Being a cable network, it’s clear, is less of a disadvantage than it used to be, as broadcast networks become just one more click on a seemingly infinite dial.
A couple of things are at work here. For years, inertia kept viewers locked on the big broadcast channels, but these days, consumers are roaming omnivores, hunting down whatever has heat and water-cooler value. And network appointment viewing has given way to foraging and bingeing.
AMC, along with its studio partners, has always made sure that if someone wants to catch up with America’s favorite zombies, or “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men,” two of its other hits, then past seasons are readily available — on demand, on Netflix or on iTunes. As a result, the audience for “The Walking Dead” is up 51 percent overall last year, and it is one of the most consistently talked about shows on social media.
It’s worth noting that the gap between basic cable and broadcast television has gradually shrunk as satellite and telecommunications companies have joined the fray. There are about 115 million television households in America, and some 99 million of them have access to AMC. On the networks, old franchises are tiring, new efforts are flopping in record time and a show like “The Walking Dead,” whose audience grew slowly and steadily over three seasons, is just not in the playbook.
“AMC sold the show to Netflix early, so when people started talking about it, it was there for the watching,” said Alexia Quadrani, a media analyst at JPMorgan.
Last Thursday, I visited Josh Sapan, the chief executive of AMC Networks, at his office across the street from Madison Square Garden. You might expect him to be celebrating his zombies’ success, but you’d be wrong. Mr. Sapan has been at AMC for 25 years and he is too superstitious to tempt the gods like that. As a collector of lightning rods — he has acquired more than a hundred, two of them on display in his office — he knows that sticking out has a cost.
“I would have put big odds against a cable show winning over network five years ago,” he said. Still, he warns, “People’s taste in what is popular can be very fleeting and short-lived. There is some alchemy at work here that is hard to diagnose and replicate.”
“It’s a big moment to those of us who are in the business,” he added, “but I don’t think the general public, especially young people, even think about where programming comes from.”
The zombies have not devoured all Mr. Sapan’s challenges. Even though advertising in the fourth quarter is up 16 percent over the previous year, earnings at AMC fell short of Wall Street estimates because of a costly fight with Dish Network and expensive outlays to service debt.
And he’s right to give the American audience, a notoriously fickle bunch, a wide berth. Ask NBC, which went from first to worst this season in nothing flat. As my colleague Bill Carter pointed out, the peacock was on top of the pile in 13 of 15 weeks from September to December, according to Nielsen. Since then, it has dropped below not only its broadcast brethren but also Univision, the Spanish-language network.
“The Walking Dead” was actually NBC’s for the asking in 2011. At a news tour for television reporters in January, Kevin Reilly, who is now at Fox but was a top programmer at NBC when the show was still up for grabs, talked about the one that got away.
“ ‘The Walking Dead’ is an extraordinary thing,” Mr. Reilly told reporters. “I bought the script at NBC from Frank Darabont. I developed it. I loved it.”
But NBC was back on its heels at the time, and Mr. Reilly ended up letting it go. “I thought it was good, but it was an early draft,” he said. “And then, when I left and I heard it went over to AMC, there was just a lot of serendipity involved.”
In fairness, “The Walking Dead” would have never made it to network prime time in all of its gory glory because of broadcast standards. Not long ago, I was wedged in the back of an airplane and took solace by catching up on Season 3 on my iPad. The guy next to me was sawing into some meat of unknown agency and looked over at my screen, where a pack of zombies were lustily feasting on human innards. “Really, dude?” he asked. “Zombies?”
AMC is also home to “Breaking Bad,” where a former science teacher turned meth chef has been known to use chemistry to dissolve the bodies of people who got in his way. Think about the box that the broadcast networks are in. Audiences expect spicy and sometimes dark narratives, but because the networks are still in the business of not offending mass audiences, they cannot even grab a hit when it comes lurching through the door. And A-list actors who used to demand that their work show up on the big networks are now after their agents to get them onto a prestige cable show.
“The talent which used to complain about being on something like AMC now want to be where good stories are being told,” said Rich Greenfield, an analyst at BTIG Research. “All around, it’s a very seismic change in the television industry.”
It’s programming that rules now, not platform or position on the dial. I watch all kinds of AMC shows and I couldn’t tell you what channel on the cable box they live on — even if a zombie were after me.