What kind of crazy channel would premiere a big-budget prestige drama on Halloween night?
That would be AMC, already home to Emmy winners "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," and as of Oct. 31, 2010, also to The Little Show That Could Whack the Big Bad Broadcast Networks.
"The Walking Dead" starts its fourth season Sunday night at 9, after a Season 3 so successful, it stunned the TV industry and made ratings history. AMC's tale of humans vs. zombies managed to lure more 2012-13 viewers than any series on ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox - despite AMC's Sunday night showings being unavailable in millions of American homes without cable or satellite service.
That 2010 Halloween launch turns out to have been a brilliant stroke by AMC, which debuted "The Walking Dead" as the culmination of its two-week annual FearFest collection of fright films. Adapted from a series of graphic novels, the horror serial was indeed graphic, expressing a different tenor and aimed at a different audience than AMC's previous original dramas.
"It was an expression that we did not yet have on the air - except in that two-week period of FearFest where we had more 35-to-40 year olds watching," says Tom Halleen, AMC Networks' executive vice president of programing and scheduling.
That "specific passion group," Halleen says, "loves survival stories, loves risks, loves the type of threat that comes along with the thrillers of FearFest. We didn't have another period of time where we had that audience." In other words, he says, "'Walking Dead' wasn't designed to be 'a Halloween show.' It was designed to create another AMC high-quality storytelling experience."
No joke. An instant hit, "The Walking Dead" satisfied not only that core "passion group," but also other viewers, who proved more willing to sample such fare at Halloween, and even picky TV critics, handed a convenient holiday peg. All three subsequent seasons were moved up to start in mid-October, so AMC could reverse the promotional order to have the hit series hype FearFest movies, this year running Oct. 14-31.
Shrewd trick. But AMC's cable and broadcast rivals are now pursuing the treat of tapping that same Halloween-primed vibe. Recent arrivals this month on the networks' fall seasons include The CW's new vampire/werewolf-/voodoo gumbo called "The Originals" (Tuesday at 8 p.m.), a spinoff of "The Vampire Diaries," plus a new season of the long-running "Supernatural" (Tuesday at 9 p.m.). NBC has staked out Oct. 25 to launch a third season of "Grimm" and a new sex-drenched Victorian take on "Dracula" starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers ("The Tudors").
Cable channels have long scheduled October stacks of spook movies/episodes like AMC's FearFest, Syfy's "31 Days of Halloween," Disney's "Monstober" and ABC Family's "13 Nights of Halloween." (Halleen also gets thanks for that last one, created during his previous gig at that channel.) Now they're launching series intended to outlast the season, too. ABC Family's frightified "Ravenswood" is spun out of the channel's hit "Pretty Little Liars" - which runs its own special Halloween hour leading into the spinoff's Oct. 22 premiere.
Even indie-arts channel Sundance grabs for Halloween-night glory with its Oct. 31 debut of the acclaimed French resurrection chiller "The Returned." (A&E is developing an American version.)
The impact of AMC's gamble on "The Walking Dead" reaches long and wide beyond lantern time. Without network-level ratings for that show, would broadcasters have been as willing to take a chance on such year-round creepfests as "Grimm," ABC's "Once Upon a Time" and Fox's new "Sleepy Hollow" (just renewed for a second season)? Once considered an unsupportable niche, "genre" shows are suddenly part of the mainstream. Everyone's gone crazy.
'The Walking Dead'
Airs 9 p.m. Sunday on AMC
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