Zombies must eat human flesh. And they're kind of partial to Nielsen ratings too, if the huge numbers for AMC's season premiere of "The Walking Dead" are any indication.
In another sign of the growing programming power of cable TV, Sunday's Season 3 rollout of the zombie drama devoured basic-cable ratings records and also became the highest-rated entertainment premiere among young adults this fall — higher even than "Modern Family" and "The Voice," not to mention "Revolution" and "Vegas" and all the other new series the broadcasters have put on.
Recent months have found cable dramas on a creative and viewership roll as broadcast rivals have lagged behind. Last month, Showtime's terrorism thriller "Homeland" took the top drama prize at the Emmy Awards, while major-broadcast dramas were completely shut out of the category.
The 9 p.m. premiere of "Walking Dead" drew 10.9 million total viewers, according to Nielsen. That's a 50% hike over the Season 2 premiere and now ranks as the biggest telecast of any drama series in basic-cable history. However, HBO still holds the record for all cable networks: the 2002 Season 4 premiere of HBO's "The Sopranos" drew more than 13 million.
But that's not all. "Walking Dead" also scored 7.3 million viewers in the key category of adults ages 18 to 49, which is the main category the entertainment networks sell to advertisers. "Walking Dead" did better on that score than all the new and returning fall shows. By comparison, ABC's hit comedy "Modern Family" — which was the top-rated entertainment show this fall — drew 7.2 million viewers in that demographic group.
"We are honored and humbled that television's largest adult audience resides on AMC," AMC President Charlie Collier said in a statement.
The zombie series' performance was even more extraordinary considering that AMC is not currently carried on the Dish Network, the satellite service with 14.3 million subscribers. As part of an ongoing contractual dispute, Dish dropped AMC at the end of June; the network has responded with ads urging customers to leave Dish and sign with another provider. Without the Dish feud, "Walking Dead's" ratings would almost certainly have crept even higher.
"That's an extraordinary rating for 'The Walking Dead,' especially since it's not being carried by Dish and its 14 million subscribers, as well as [its] premiering during the early weeks of the broadcast season," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media in New York.
"Based on the recent success of dramas at the Emmy Awards and broadcast type ratings of 'The Walking Dead' and [History's miniseries] 'Hatfields & McCoys' last May, it's apparent that some cable networks have found a formula to attract viewers and get critical acclaim," he added. Adgate noted that because "Walking Dead" has built-in appeal to young adults — it's based on a series of popular comic books — the series generates a high number of mentions on Twitter and other social-media platforms, further driving viewership.
When the repeats shown later in the evening were thrown in, "The Walking Dead's" total audience amounted to 15.2 million viewers.