AMC’s The Walking Dead Shows how the Network’s Choice to Embrace Online Viewing has led to Better Ratings for its Live Broadcasts

Walking Dead

An interesting article in Bloomberg Businessweek calls attention to the kind of synergy that a story driven show can receive when a thoughtful strategy is developed for its delivery both online and on broadcast television. The show referred to in the article is The Walking Dead, a popular television drama about a zombie apocalypse. The show premiered its fifth season to an audience of 17.3 million households according to Nielsen. This represented a significant jump in ratings from last season’s premiere, which boasted 16.1 million viewers. In fact, the season five premiere of the show became the highest rated cable television show in history.

It’s even more impressive in a day and age where time shifted media is more accessible than ever causing headaches for both advertisers and networks. For those not familiar with the concept of time shifted media it is essentially programming (television shows, movies, etc.) that has been recorded onto a storage medium with the goal of enabling its viewing at a more convenient time. This dynamic has made it more difficult for advertisers and television networks to determine what the appropriate rates for buying advertising time should be for different shows. As a result, networks in some instances are getting underpaid (when the full ratings picture for a show takes multiple weeks to compile for a seven day period and ads are sold based on the ratings from the first three days after an episode premieres). In other instances advertisers are feeling like they are getting the short end of the stick (think of how people watch shows on a DVR). For AMC, the network responsible for The Walking Dead, embracing time shifted media by way of many viewers tendency to consume content online has worked to their advantage. The fact is one way or another a television networks’ content is going to find its way onto the internet in multiple places so perhaps it’s better not to try and fight it.

AMC signed a multiyear licensing agreement with Netflix a few years back and the arrangement that offers both groups great value from a marketing standpoint among other areas. Netflix benefits from being able to show one of the most popular shows on its service and AMC is able to provide another means through which fans of The Walking Dead can view the show. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly because Netflix episodes offers every season with exception to the most recent one AMC is able to provide an avenue through which people can pick up the show and catch up on episodes so that they can join the hordes of viewers who watch new episodes when they air on cable.

For a show such as The Walking Dead, which is heavily driven by a linear storyline where it is not uncommon for new characters to come on board and old ones to meet an untimely demise, it’s easier to develop a symbiotic relationship between the two vehicles for delivering the show. Another strong motivator for many fans to watch each episode live (assuming they are caught up) is avoiding having an episode’s contents spoiled for them via social media where the show has a tendency to garner significant attention. A post on Forbes’ website indicates that the show’s season 5 premiere generated over 1.3 million tweets and at one point held every spot for the top ten trending topics on Twitter for the United States.

AMC offers the most recent episodes online (where ads can still be offered up) along with the more traditional method of offering encores of new episodes on television soon after so that many viewers can still watch recent episodes at a more convenient time. However, many viewers are still compelled to watch the episodes when they first air. As the show continues to build a buzz on social media and attracts new fans based on positive reviews from critics and recommendations from friends AMC has secured via its multi-year deal with Netflix a high quality way to help bring new viewers on board. A pretty clear win-win for both parties involved.

From a marketing management perspective here are some questions to consider:

  • As a marketing manager for a television drama that decided to take a similar approach to The Walking Dead in terms of making episodes of the show available both online and on television, what might be one type of specific strategy that you could develop to help drive more viewers to watch the live broadcast of the show?
  • What are the risks of making a program’s past seasons available on Netflix while new episodes are still being produced? Are there any types of television shows where this does not seem to be as appropriate of a strategy. If so, why?