One of the key takeaways from the current TV season has involved the important reminder that hits can now emanate from anywhere, underscored by the enviable ratings for “The Walking Dead” and now “Downton Abbey.”
Part of that has to do with shifting consumption patterns, allowing these programs to take on an expanded life of their own via downloads and delayed viewing, as word of mouth helps steadily build anticipation for new episodic runs. It’s no accident both programs returned for their third season at far higher audience levels than anything they posted previously.
Their success also throws down a gantlet to the commercial broadcast networks, given that the total audience for these series surpasses so many of their offerings. As Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly acknowledged, he and his counterparts can no longer pooh-pooh the success of something like “Walking Dead” as a cable diversion, when it’s become TV’s most-watched drama within coveted young-adult demos.
Not only do the two programs command attention from broadcasters, but the playbooks they use have a great deal in common. In some respects in fact, the shows are virtually the same.
What’s that, you say? What attributes could an early-20th-century British drama presented under the imprimatur of PBS’ “Masterpiece” possibly share with a post-apocalyptic zombie gorefest on AMC?
Look a little closer, and the parallels are more than passing. Both “Downton” and “Dead” are essentially soap operas in an unexpected, exotic setting, featuring large casts and boasting a strong element of unpredictability. (Yes, guys, even though there are zombies and blood sprays, you’re watching a soap.)
The overlap is even more pronounced for those who have seen “Downton’s” entire third season, which just began its U.S. run. So while carefully massaging a few points to avoid spoilers, in both series:
• The social order is undergoing a period of major upheaval, involving wrenching changes to the traditional power structure.
• The program’s central patriarchal figure finds his authority questioned, and must re-examine whether he is still equipped to lead his extended family.
• Part of the third season takes place within a prison.
• An unlikely female character has won the admiration of fans thanks to her slashing, take-no-prisoners style. (Granted, in one case, it’s the Dowager Countess and her rapier wit, and in the other, Michonne wielding an actual samurai sword.)
• Death can be unexpected and emotionally jarring, although from a viewer perspective, vital in terms of keeping the audience off balance and upping the emotional ante.
• Viewers have been exposed to the wonders of childbirth, as well as some of the difficulties associated with finding reliable healthcare in these more challenging times.
• Family relationships and marriages have been tested.
• Unforeseen events force children to deal with issues of mortality and to grow up faster than they otherwise might have.
• There’s a significant caste system — first, between the aristocracy and their servants; and second, between the living and, well, the not.
Of course, the most germane connection is really first-rate writing, strong casting and gutsy serialized storytelling, reflecting a willingness to take chances. Human relationships are at the core, even if the time, place and circumstances are unusual.
From a scheduling perspective, each series also benefits from relatively short orders — with seven episodes for each of “Downton’s” arcs (including two-hour opening and closing chapters), and eight for “Dead’s” half-seasons.
In short, the mysteries regarding what audiences like really aren’t as imponderable as we’re often led to believe, and preoccupation with concepts can easily obscure the simple pleasures of terrific execution.
Couched in those terms, the two shows’ jaw-dropping ratings do offer some universal lessons. Although that said, we’re still working on a logical explanation for why so many people are watching “Duck Dynasty.”