Walking Dead tramples cable competition

Andy Fry
By Andy Fry
February 19, 2016

Hit & Miss
The Walking Dead continues to dominate the cable landscape
The Walking Dead continues to dominate the cable landscape with huge ratings on AMC

AMC’s The Walking Dead is back with a bang and Better Call Saul didn’t do badly either. This week we look at some of the other big US cable shows limbering up for launch. Also, HBO’s Vinyl renewed and ITV’s Beowulf on the brink.

This is an interesting time of year for US cable drama. On the one hand, you get a number of new launches. On the other, you get established series returning after their winter break.

AMC’s zombie phenomenon The Walking Dead (TWD), for example, returned on Valentine’s Day after a two-month pause with a storming 13.7 million same-day audience – the highest-rating cable show of the week by a mile. This was down slightly on the pre-Christmas finale episode but not enough to sound any alarms.

In fact, the franchise is so strong that the second highest-rating show of the week was Talking Dead, the fan chatshow that comes immediately after each episode. With 6.4 million viewers, this franchise extension attracts a bigger audience than virtually every drama on cable. To ram home the show’s dominance, the fifth highest-rating telecast of the week was a TWD marathon, which drew in just under five million viewers.

Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson
Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson

The only other drama to make it into the cable top 25 during this week was FX’s American Crime Story: The People V. OJ Simpson, which recorded a same-day audience of 3.33 million for episode three. This is down on the previous episode but not calamitously, suggesting the show will probably settle at around the three million mark. If this is the case then it will certainly end this season as FX’s top-rated show.

TWD’s outlandishly strong performance makes most other cable shows look feeble by comparison. But it’s important to readjust the lens before making a judgement. For example, season two of AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has just debuted with 2.57 million. While that may not be in the same league as TWD, it is a thoroughly respectable score that comes in at a similar level to the end of season one. The only AMC shows that outperform it are TWD, its companion series Fear The Walking Dead and the martial arts fantasy Into the Badlands.

The fact that this is a launch period for shows means there are always numerous pre-launch trailers on display to whet people’s appetites. FX, for example, has been airing promos for The Americans, a period espionage drama about two KGB agents deep undercover in the US during the 1980s.

The Americans' chances of a fifth season look slim
The Americans’ chances of a fifth season look slim

The Americans is now in season four and has been received well by pundits and hardcore cable viewers. But its audience is only borderline sustainable, having come in around the one million mark for series three. That’s down on the season two average of 1.34 million and also less than the 1.22 million average that led to a first-season cancellation for FX’s medieval adventure The Bastard Executioner. Without some kind of uplift for The Americans, it’s tough to see the show surviving for a fifth season – unless it racks up a few high-profile awards to justify its existence.

Another show that has been promoted heavily in recent weeks is History Channel’s Vikings, which returned for a fourth run yesterday. This is a key show for History, which increased the episode order from 10 for the first three seasons to 20 for this one on the back of strong ratings.

For season three, the show was attracting around two million same-day viewers, jumping to 4.3 million for Live+3 days (one of the biggest uplifts to be found in scripted cable TV). The season-three premiere on Feb 19 last year attracted 4.6 million Live+3 viewers, so that is the kind of benchmark History will be looking for to ensure its increased investment is paying off. An added bonus is that the show also does well on History in Canada.

Vikings
Vikings returned to History Channel yesterday with a double-length season

Another key series being trailed now is BBC America’s Orphan Black, which returns to US screens on April 14 with a 10-episode run. Season three ratings of 440,000 don’t sound that high when put against the shows already mentioned, but BBC America is a smaller channel with more limited ratings expectations (The Last Kingdom, for example, was pulling in around 350,000 to 400,000 when it aired on the channel last year).

Another show that recently returned to US screens after an extended autumn/winter break was USA Network’s slick city lawyer drama Suits. In the past we’ve talked up the ratings performance of this show but there are now signs that it is finally flagging. While the first half of season five (aired during summer) was hitting similar audiences to season four (circa 2.1 to 2.3 million), the first four episodes since the show’s return have come in around 1.5 to 1.7 million. Suits is still USA Network’s top show but there will be some concern about the slide, especially given that the network committed to season six a while ago.

As we’ve said many times, the decision whether to renew a show in the pay TV space is about not just the headline ratings, but also the role the programme plays in pulling subscribers to a network and keeping them there.

Vinyl has already been given a second season on HBO
Martin Scorsese’s music industry drama Vinyl has already been given a second season on HBO

HBO, for example, has just renewed its new Martin Scorsese-directed music series Vinyl for a second season after just one episode of the first season. Clearly this isn’t anything to do with the ratings, which came in at a modest 760,000. Instead, HBO will be thinking about the value of having a high-concept Scorsese drama on its playlist – not just in the US but also on own-branded or partner services around the world, such as HBO Go Nordic and Sky Atlantic.

Meanwhile, UK newspapers are starting to report that ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is going to be axed at the end of its first season. With seven out of 12 episodes aired, the show is currently pulling in a below-par 1.5 million viewers. ITV is not commenting on the reports as yet but is unlikely to recommission such a big-budget show with this level of audience. A cancellation will, however, be a big blow to ITV, which has already pulled the plug on Jekyll and Hyde, another foray into the fantasy adventure space. Cable network Esquire will also be disappointed, having picked up the show in the hope it might develop into a long-running franchise.

Fantasy fans won’t be worried, however, because season six of HBO’s Game of Thrones is launching on April 24. It will also air on Sky Atlantic in the UK at the same time (02.00 local time). Despite this graveyard slot on a niche pay TV channel, chances are the new Game of Thrones series will still outrate Beowulf, which just goes to show the power of the big cable brands.

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