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The Zombie Apocalypse by numbers

The Walking Dead remains a monster hit; the third season of the zombie drama smashed viewing records in the United States last week and the show has been incredibly well received around the world. But why has the show, which had a relatively tumultuous development process, become such a phenomenon and will a new next batch of zombie thrillers follow in its footsteps?

The third season of the series, which airs on US basic cable network AMC, recorded up to 15 million viewers on its first night, beating History’s smash hit miniseries Hatfield & McCoys as well as broadcast hits including The Big Bang Theory and The Voice.

The show recorded 10.9 million viewers for its first episode, which was a 50% increase on its season two launch, and recorded over 4 million viewers on repeats.

“We are honored and humbled that television’s largest adult audience resides on AMC,” AMC President Charlie Collier said.

Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays (the heavily pregnant) Lori Grimes, told TBI at MIPCOM that the show’s success was initially about the flesh-eating undead, but that as it has gone on, it’s become more of a character drama. “The zombies are what initially garnered us support from the fans. But to me it was a human story,” she said at a MIPCOM conference session. “When I read it, I wasn’t reading a TV pilot. I was reading a movie.”

The Walking Dead had a lengthy gestation period; the rights to Robert Kirkman’s comic book had been optioned by a number of different parties over the years, including, at one point, Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro. It had also been set up at various networks including HBO and NBC, although both broadcasters were nervous of the violent elements and over-the-top gore in Frank Darabont’s adaptation.

“We did feel like the pretty girl at the dance,” said executive producer Gale Anne Hurd. “We had two suitors and we had to choose. And they were both pretty impressive. The difference was that AMC and Fox International Channels offered something that no one else in their right mind would have offered at the time, which is ‘we won’t make you produce a pilot,’ which is the standard way things are done in the US.

“There was no way that we could turn that down. That meant we were on the air, that we bypassed the really traumatic pilot process, the upfronts and all of those things that traditionally one has to endure,” added Hurd.

To produce The Walking Dead, AMC, which at the time was best known for critically acclaimed dramas Mad Men and Breaking Bad, set up AMC Studios, in part to avoid losing out on ancillary revenues in the same way that it had done for Lionsgate-produced and distributed Mad Men.

However, AMC needed an international partner. While, it was courted by many of the top tier global distributors, Fox International Channels, lead by Sharon Tal Yguado, executive vice president, scripted programming and original development, agreed to launch the show around the world at the same time as its US bow.

“Why launch a show on a global level and treat it like a theatrical release when TV is a local business?” Tal Yguado asked. The answer, she says is that people around the world will be talking about a hit series like this. “So why not capitalise on these global conversations and make them truly global,” she said.

Two of the main reasons were to take advantage of marketing on a global level and also to avoid piracy. “Once, if you were not a world traveler, you would find out about a show when it was launched in your market and sometimes that happened a year after it was launched in the US,” she said. Obviously, in a digital world, that is no longer the case.

Fox International Channels also employed Entertainment One (eOne) to sell the series into territories where a) it did not have channels and b) to terrestrial broadcasters. The distributor was able to close a number of major deals, many life-of-series, with high profile networks including Channel 5 (UK).

The ratings also proved FIC’s global ambitions correct; The Walking Dead was one of the highest rated shows across Fox International Channels’ portfolio around the world.

The numbers for season three internationally have also echoed the US; in Britain, the show launched on FX a few days after its AMC bow to 369,000, more than double the number of people who watched the latest season of Mad Men on Sky.

The resounding effect of The Walking Dead’s numbers is that mainstream broadcasters have noticed the popularity of zombies.

George A. Romero’s series of zombie flicks (from Night of the Living Dead to Dawn of the Dead) have been huge hits over the years and more recent zombie features including 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead have been big box office successes, but the horror genre has always struggled on the small screen. However, the success of The Walking Dead has encouraged rival broadcasters to develop further within the undead.

Fox is developing a TV remake of Jesse Eisenberg-fronted feature Zombieland, produced by Sony Pictures Television and Gavin Polone; The CW tried (but ultimately failed) to enter the genre with Warner Bros-produced zombie drama Awakening and Amazon is currently developing Zombies vs Gladiators with Hellraiser director Clive Barker.

“In the world of The Walking Dead, this is really happening,” added Hurd. “We’re not waking up with the audience; this is dead real.”