Drawing Right Lessons from ‘The Walking Dead’

The second-season premiere of “The Walking Dead” drew the kind of jaw-dropping ratings that make other networks sit up and take notice.

TWD_201_0616_3558So before they start rushing their own zombie shows into production, a few words about why the AMC drama bit off such a sizable portion of the Sunday-night audience.

For starters, the first season of “The Walking Dead” only ran a half-dozen episodes, and thus left the fans hungry for more. (Sorry, these zombie jokes just write themselves.) In essence, the show was under-exposed in part because AMC was unsure about the concept going in. Being a little cowardly, in this case, paid dividends.

Moreover, the mid-October premiere turned out to be extremely smart, and not just in terms of proximity to Halloween. By now, some of the new network dramas have sort of punched themselves out. People are looking for something new, especially on Sunday night, where the options — many of them heavily female in nature — are a pretty stark contrast to “Walking Dead.”

Third, the show is really, really well done — and plays on multiple levels. It’s satisfying as a character-oriented serial, but also offers enough gut-churning elements to play in the horror realm — like digging through a zombie’s stomach, “Jaws”-style, looking for a missing character. Frankly, I get a little queasy all over again just thinking about it.

Finally, the concept — targeted toward a younger audience, and appealing to men — is a demographic bull’s-eye. As good as the overall total-viewer number was, the really stunning aspect of the show’s performance was how well it played among adults 18-49, which ought to make advertisers salivate for more. (Talk about flesh-eating zombies….)

The real mistake would be if everyone tries to come up with their own version of this. As we’ve seen with FX’s “American Horror Story” — which has done fine ratings-wise, but is a creative mess — this is not an easy genre to get right.

Still, this sort of success tends to make development execs flock in its direction like, yes, a pack of mindless zombies. Or as my old colleague Michael Schneider tweeted after seeing the ratings: Cut to AMC execs feverishly cutting scenes of 19th century zombies into HELL ON WHEELS.

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