Sunday's season 4 premiere of AMC's zombie drama chowed down on 16.1 million total viewers, according to Nielsen. That's a record for the series, of course, as well as a remarkable 48% boost from last year's season 3 rollout.
It also puts "Walking Dead" in the rarefied company of TV's most-watched shows. "NCIS," currently the No. 1 show on TV, averages around 20 million viewers for new episodes. "Walking Dead" will probably reach that point once delayed viewing is factored in for Sunday's episode.
More important is the performance of "Walking Dead" among young adults, the audience most TV executives are seeking. An average of 10.4 million viewers 18 to 49 years old watched the Sunday premiere. That is a huge number that easily surpasses anything on broadcast.
This news left me with two questions. One: who the hell are you people watching NCIS? Mark Harmon's dimples can't be holding up that well (my wife said it would be the clear No. 1 if the elderly knew how to program their DVRs). And two: how great is it for society that a freaking zombie TV show is the most watched program on TV?
To offer a few points of comparison, the recent series finale of AMC's Breaking Bad drew 10.28 million viewers (roughly twice what it averaged for the second half of Season Five), while Mad Men, the network's critical darling, averages 2.5 million viewers per episode.
Does this mean The Walking Dead is better than either of those two shows? Well of course it does. Ratings = quality television. That's how we know American Idol is one of the greatest television programs of all time.
In all seriousness, it's somewhat more than a mild surprise that a show set during a zombie apocalypse and starring that guy from Boondock Saints and that one dude from Love, Actually is drawing so many viewers, especially considering the network's aforementioned heavy hitters. (Sunday night's NFL game between the Cowboys and Redskins could still end up beating it, and even the "delayed viewing" factor may not top NCIS.) But the fact that a cable show is threatening the big networks' hoary procedurals is noteworthy.
But the best part is it's a *horror* show that's doing it. I don't know off the top of my head what would come in (a probably distant) second: The Twilight Zone? The X-Files? Hannibal? Small Wonder? Maybe a new series, like American Horror Story, which scored 5.54 million viewers for its season premiere.
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Indeed, horror has rarely been as popular on TV as it is now. Part of it is due to the existence of channels like SyFy and Chiller, which - quality issues aside - are playing a role in reintroducing older series like Dark Shadows and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. But I don't remember a time when quote-unquote "major" networks (sorry, CW) offered so much programming: TWD, AHS, Bates Motel, Sleepy Hollow (which is doing surprisingly well in its inaugural season), Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries (if that really counts). Not since the late '80s, when you had shows based on popular cinematic serial killers and the first Twilight Zone reboot to choose from.
There's also an argument to be made that shows like Criminal Minds and Dexter count as horror, too, but I'm not going down that road again.
And with the success of TWD (and World War Z), it appears not as many folks are as sick of zombies as we once thought. I can't lie, Zombie Horror is my favorite sub-genre next to Giant Bug movies, which are problematic from a weekly series standpoint (it's hard to introduce a realistic romantic foil for a giant mantis). Maybe it resonates more now, with government shutdowns, climate anxiety, and other allegedly existential threats popping up every week (and no less an authority than Michelle Bachmann telling us we're living in the End Times). Portents and omens abound, it seems, even as reality shows like Doomsday Preppers provide crash courses in surviving an apocalypse, zombie or otherwise.
Better that than vampires. As excruciating as The Walking Dead has been at times (most of season 2; Shane being allowed to live for way too long; Carl), I'll still take it over a Twilight series.