For Hungry ‘Walking Dead’ Fans, ‘Talking’ Is Cheap

As jaw-dropping (and even arm- and leg-dropping) as “The Walking Dead’s” season-premiere ratings were, an equally dazzling figure – at least on a return-on-investment basis – might be the numbers registered by “Talking Dead,” the hour of chat devoted to the show that airs immediately following it.

After all, “Walking Dead” is an expensive drama with extensive special effects and a big cast – the kind that eventually want raises, assuming their representatives can read a Nielsen spread sheet.

Talking Dead” consists of a host in a chair, and a couple of people sitting next to him, possessing roughly the same production values as a panel at Comic-Con. The only thing cheaper in TV terms would be a test pattern with a picture of Andrew Lincoln on it, accompanied by Bear McCreary’s score.

Tellingly, the most recent episode of “The Good Wife” featured a spoof of the “Talking” concept – AMC constructed a similar hour to capitalize on “Breaking Bad’s” final season – but for all its meticulous scripts and fabulous actors, CBS’ Emmy-nominated broadcast drama attracted about a third as many viewers in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic as Chris Hardwick’s high-energy kibitzing.

Nor is that intended to pick on “The Good Wife,” since “Talking Dead’s” 3.5 rating in the key demo was enough to edge Tuesday’s rating for “The Flash” and “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” combined.

Obviously, “Walking Dead” is a phenomenon, and as such has an enormous gravitational pull. Few programs have enjoyed such a potent combination of mass appeal and cultish devotion – a point that seems especially true in today’s fragmented viewing environment.

The rationale behind “Talking Dead,” though, speaks to a realization that a successful TV series essentially cultivates its own ecosystem. People are going to go on Twitter and Facebook and into chat rooms as soon as the show ends anyway, so why not harness that social-media wave and cash in?

Indeed, the let’s-talk-about-what-you-just-saw format has gradually spread, from Bravo to A&E to FX’s recent promotion of its “Sons of Anarchy” Web show to a spot behind the season premiere. Not only does this seem to reflect a nod to reality – that “Walking Dead” fans want more of what they just saw, not “Turn” – but a practical decision to offset the flagship show’s costs with a less expensive satellite.

In TV’s circle of life (and profit), that sort of makes “Talking Dead,” with its relatively paltry budget, the remora to “Walking Dead’s” shark.

AMC declined to discuss “Talking Dead” — which is strange, if only because the program is no doubt raking in money hand over bloody fist. Still, in a Los Angeles Times piece last year, officials acknowledged the show delivers “a nice return on our investment.”

The network’s reticence might have something to do with having been sued over profits related to the franchise, as well as AMC’s recent decision to cut back on unscripted programming. But industry sources estimate the budget to produce an hour like “Talking Dead” to be in the $250,000 range — which, even if that’s conservative, would put it in the ballpark of costing about a tenth of its dramatic sire.

Admittedly, “Talking Dead” has struggled to find the right balance, often feeling too giddy and unsophisticated (especially when actors occupy the guest seats) in light of the way savvy audiences inhale such shows. The opportunity to quiz series creators and behind-the-scenes personnel about the creative process is thus mostly squandered, and there’s additional second-guessing to be done about the practice of enlisting unaffiliated celebrities to share their views.

That said, the season premiere of “Talking Dead” retained 40% of its lead-in over the course of an hour, which provides some clue as to how many “Walking Dead” viewers would rather watch even somewhat banal talk about the show than do pretty much anything else.

Seen in that context, the folks at “The Good Wife” are welcome to snigger, but if a network can hold onto a sizable chunk of a hit program’s audience for the price of taping someone on a couch – versus the several million dollars required to birth another episodic drama – it doesn’t take a particularly big brain, or an appetite for one, to see the benefits of the strategy.

As a result, one shouldn’t be surprised after watching a favorite show to think, “Hey, look who’s talking.”

 

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