Business NotesAt AMC, Two Character Dramas, Just One Hit
By Brian Stelter, The New York Times
- November 15th, 2010
At this time of year, network television executives survey the dead shows of autumn and ask, what went wrong?
AMC, the movie channel turned hourlong drama powerhouse, is instead surveying its new hit about a zombie attack, The Walking Dead, and asking, what went right?
On its face, The Walking Dead would seem a hard sell to viewers, with its gory flesh-eating scenes and its comic-book roots. But when the first episode was shown on Halloween, it ranked as the most watched scripted series in the history of cable television among 18- to 49-year-olds, a demographic courted by advertisers and by AMC.
Last week, AMC executives ordered a second season of The Walking Dead and, at an off-site retreat, celebrated the victory. They also promptly canceled another show, Rubicon, a conspiracy theory thriller that put up disappointing ratings after it had its premiere over the summer.
Both shows were character-centric dramas, but the differences were stark. Rubicon was criticized for plodding along, while The Walking Dead was praised for its cliffhanger endings. And Rubicon started in August, which, in the new math of the television season, was a more competitive time of year. Around Halloween, The Walking Dead, said Gary Lico, the chief executive of CableU, had an open field since most new network shows had started four to six weeks before.
Perhaps most important, The Walking Dead had some of the markings and some of the marketing of a feature-length film. Frank Darabont, who directed The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, developed the series and directed the first episode, which was close to 90 minutes long. Robert Kirkman, who helped write the comic books of the same name, was on the set much of the time. The series had its premiere in dozens of countries at the same time, backed by a marketing budget that its international distributor, Fox International, called unprecedented.
Every now and then in this business, Mr. Lico said, things just come together.
Similarly, the president of AMC, Charlie Collier, said there was a pretty wonderful confluence of events.
In an interview last week, he foremost credited Mr. Kirkman, Mr. Darabont and the other creative forces behind the series. He said the comic books brought a passionate genre fan base, and suggested that others were attracted to the show for the same reason we were, which is that it's a character drama and it's about survival.
Mr. Kirkman concurred in an interview, saying, It's something that succeeds in movies all the time, but I don't think anybody has seen survival horror on TV before.
The first episode drew 5.3 million viewers, a record for AMC, a unit of Cablevision's Rainbow Media, and the second, on Nov. 7, drew 4.8 million.
The show was spun off from the seven-year-old comic book series. Gale Anne Hurd, one of the executive producers, said that in the pitch meeting late last year, the channel executives were already genuinely familiar with Mr. Kirkman's work. You often pitch people who say they've read something, but haven't, she remarked.
Within two days of the meeting, AMC asked for a pilot script, which Mr. Darabont then wrote. Rather than producing just a pilot episode, however, the channel decided to order six episodes outright, an unusual step in the TV business. We looked at the source material, looked at the people, and said, We gotta get this on the air for Halloween,' Mr. Collier said.
AMC caters to horror fans each October with a two-week movie marathon, Fearfest, giving The Walking Dead a relevant lead-in. Producing just six episodes limited the damage in case the series flopped, though Mr. Collier said it was never intended as a miniseries.
The advantage in producing six episodes in a row was continuity, Ms. Hurd said, keeping the cast members in character and keeping the same crew members employed. It was also, to be honest, far more cost-effective, she said.
The episodes were filmed almost entirely on location in and around Atlanta, where a roughly 30 percent tax credit cut down costs. AMC declined to comment on the show's budget, but two people with knowledge of the production said each episode cost $2 million to $2.5 million, a price that puts it in line with other high-end dramas on cable, though still below the equivalent prices on broadcast television.
Limiting the financial exposure, AMC sold all international rights to The Walking Dead in advance to Fox International, an arm of the News Corporation. Fox International then introduced the show in those markets simultaneously, making it more like a theatrical release, said Sharon Tal Yguado, a senior vice president at Fox International. Marketers organized zombie-walking stunts in about two dozen cities.
Ms. Tal Yguado said she thought it helped that the whole project was positioned as an event. Already, Fox International has been boasting of the show's strong ratings in countries like Korea and Venezuela.
In the United States, an October debut allowed The Walking Dead to catch the tailwind of Mad Men, AMC's best known show, which had its fourth season finale on Oct. 17. They had the Mad Men' momentum, Mr. Lico said. Rubicon, on the other hand, was introduced shortly after Mad Men returned in the summer.
Mr. Lico thought Rubicon also suffered because it was too complicated to explain to viewers, In contrast, with zombies, you get it, he said. It's a one-sentence thing.http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/15/bu...dia/15amc.html