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The Success Of ‘The Walking Dead’ Made A Bunch Of Other Shows And Comics Possible

The second season of the “Walking Dead” spinoff “Fear the Walking Dead” premiered Sunday on AMC to huge ratings. It was the most-watched thing on Sunday on cable and broadcast. But taking a step back, it’s a good time to appreciate just what the “Walking Dead” franchise has done for the two companies that distribute it, AMC Networks on television and Image Comics in print.

Namely, say what you will about the show or the comic book, but it’s managed to fund a creative renaissance at two of the top producers of original content in their respective mediums.

That “The Walking Dead” is the top show on cable isn’t exactly news. It’s a scripted drama that somehow beats out live sports, which are usually the biggest draw on cable. Even “The Talking Dead,” the post-airing recap and discussion show hosted by Chris Hardwick, is the top-rated talk show on the tube.

Here are the day-of total viewers for each episode of “The Walking Dead,” from STVPlus+:

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According to data from SNL Kagan, a television research company, AMC brought in an estimated $500 million in advertising revenue in 2015, up from $262 million in 2010, the year “The Walking Dead” premiered and when “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” were the chief boutique offerings for the network.

Indeed, AMC’s financial documents directly underscore just how crucial the program has been for the network. According to AMC’s most recent financial disclosures, advertising revenues increased by $102 million from 2013 to 2014 across all of its networks1 and by $181 million from 2014 to 2015. The company explicitly credited “The Walking Dead” for the increase.2 A hit like “The Walking Dead” can have major trickle-down effects as well, giving AMC more leverage when negotiating its bundle with distributors.3

That “The Walking Dead” has been able to hold down substantial ratings and pull in the requisite coin has also given AMC the chance to invest in scripted dramas that other networks might have passed on, such as “Better Call Saul,” “Turn,” “Halt and Catch Fire,” and the forthcoming “Preacher” and “Feed the Beast.”

So “The Walking Dead” has helped fund a scripted renaissance on the small screen, but its effect on Image Comics, which publishes the comic, is even more pronounced.

“It’s pretty apparent [that] the TV show’s 2010 premiere coincided with dramatic growth in Image’s market share in the comics shops,” said John Jackson Miller, a comics historian who tracks sales at Comichron. If “The Walking Dead” were its own company, Miller said, today it would have the seventh-highest market share in the entire comic shop market.

The success of the book, especially after its adaptation to TV, not only made Image lots of money, but also allowed the company to turn around and recruit other creators. “They were looking for that hit for a long time,” Miller said in a phone interview. “‘The Walking Dead’ was that hit, and it was a proof of concept.” After the show came out, interest in “Walking Dead” blew up, and sales with it: Back in 2012, Miller said, “The Walking Dead” accounted for a massive 35 percent of Image’s comic shop sales. That meant that Image could sell the success of “The Walking Dead” — the company’s ability to nurture a concept into adaptations, for instance — to other creators.

But back to that “making lots of money” thing: The real success of “The Walking Dead” for Image has been in the trade paperback market, where comic book arcs are bundled into books and sold at bookstores in addition to comic shops. Trades of “The Walking Dead” are nearly permanent fixtures in the monthly Nielsen BookScan top-20 graphic novels list. This means a large revenue stream for Image — where “Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman was made a partner in 2008 — that can be used to fund new books.

This appears to have worked out: Although sales of “The Walking Dead” remain robust, the title’s share of Image’s comic shop sales dropped to 15 percent in 2015, Miller said. That’s due to the success of Image’s other post-“Walking Dead” hits, such as “Saga,” “Paper Girls,” “The Wicked + the Divine” and “Sex Criminals.”

Thanks to large sales of “The Walking Dead” in comic shops and even bigger sales of the collected trade paperbacks in bookstores, Miller said that Image — at first a home for the exiled intellectual property of seven comics creators — enjoyed a rebirth as the top independent publisher in the field two decades after its founding.

I’d end this article with a corny line connecting zombies to rebirth or some nonsense, but we’re better than that. I don’t care for the show or read the comic, but as a huge fan of “Better Call Saul” on AMC and “Saga” and “The Wicked + the Divine” at Image, I have to love “The Walking Dead.” In the end, it’s funded a creative renaissance at two major production houses.

Footnotes

  1. In addition to AMC: WeTV, BBC America, IFC and Sundance TV.

  2. On page 36 of the 2015 10-K report (numbers in thousands): “Advertising revenues increased $180,678 across all of our networks, with the largest increase at AMC resulting from higher pricing per unit sold due to an increased demand for our programming by advertisers, led by The Walking Dead.” That doesn’t mean “The Walking Dead” got all that money, but it’s the core offering.

  3. This further emphasizes why the advertising gains are so critical. Advertising accounted for 40 percent of AMC Networks’ revenue in 2015; distribution revenue — affiliation fees and licensing — was the other 60 percent. In their 2015 10-K, AMC Networks said, “Our programming networks’ existing affiliation agreements expire at various dates through 2024.” This means that, barring other negotiations to change the current deals, AMC can’t wring vast sums of money from cable companies outside of the scope of the current deals, despite sitting on a huge hit.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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