Zombies were a big thing on Halloween. The Walking Dead may be responsible for that. What the show’s massive ratings mean for AMC and the rest of the television.

On Halloween, I had two little children, aged four and seven, approach my door wanting candy. It was Halloween, yes, but while other kids came dressed as astronauts and superheroes, these two were excitedly Rick and Andrea from AMC’s The Walking Dead. The little boy had a sheriff’s cap and the right hair; the girl had blonde pigtails and a paper-made sniper rifle. They boasted about killing zombies, opposite to their series’ counterparts, who face death around every corner. To my surprise, the parents seemed fine letting their kids indulge in the obscene gore; but the kids themselves playfully suggested it was their idea. He idolized Rick’s courage, he said, while she spoke of Andrea’s tenacity. It was a beautiful moment in a strange, revelatory way: For one, the family shared Sunday nights. But two, in a greater cultural context, The Walking Dead is watched by the biggest audience in cable history. And that does include everyone.

Viewership is just a number. Data that trudges through the news cycle with little importance to the average person. Advertising agencies and the networks use it to measure a show’s audience retention or to order cancellation, but it’s mostly meaningless. But The Walking Dead is hardly “just a show”. It’s not even plainly a cultural institution anymore–it’s given birth to a ratings bonanza for AMC that the rest of TV wishes to emulate. In this case, viewership is far from meaningless. In fact, it might be the only relevant thing the show offers to evolving television as a medium.

The series’ fourth-season premiere attracted 16.1 million viewers, firmly breaking the existing record to become the most-watched telecast in basic cable history. It was also the highest rated American broadcast of the night in the 18-49 group. The record it broke? The mid-season premiere, or episode nine, of season three which registered 12.3 million viewers. Season four has so far maintained those tremendous numbers too, with about 13 million tuning in every Sunday.

On Sundays, the show has had to compete against a plenitude of big-ticket events like Sunday Night Football, the Oscars, and broadcast shows like The Good Wife. But the show’s loyal audience has proven impenetrable: The 85th Academy Awards registered 40 million viewers while the episode that aired against it, “I Ain’t a Judas”, received 11 million, or what had been consistent throughout season three. That consistency is what puzzles industry watchers: Behind-the-scenes turmoil and some poorly written characters (Lori) haven’t deterred the audience.

The Walking Dead could be a product of fortunate circumstance. Fans of The Killing or Mad Men liked AMC’s programming range and stuck around. No show in recent memory has shown zombies or “walkers” or “biters” getting stabbed as much or as violently. And no other show has provided the oddities, for lack of a better term, of a zombie apocalypse: trapped-in-a-well zombies, attached-to-a-tree zombie, caught-under-a-car-and-now-tire-chow zombies, etc.

Whatever the cause, the massive ratings present a conundrum for cable providers. Networks like AMC that have a selection of hit shows now have leverage over providers like DISH and Time Warner. AMC and DISH specifically battled in October last year over the provider’s refusal to air AMC Network’s other channels–Sundance Channel, IFC, Fuse and WE–while still wishing to air AMC. It was ugly, surely, but AMC ultimately won. DISH paid AMC Networks $700 million and agreed to continue airing the other channels.

AMC also has a spinoff series in the works, which, according to Robert Kirkman, will be set outside of Georgia. Along with Better Call Saul, AMC has managed thus far to hold onto its paramount series for an extended period of time. How long that will last is another question. But these shows and their massive ratings leave AMC in a problematic position. The rush of spinoffs makes the network appear desperate, or unwilling to recoup its reputation of turning non-marketable concepts into fabulous shows.

Can the network project a confident aptitude to producing new hit shows? Maybe, but it’s working in reverse now.

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