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The first trailer for upcoming science fiction show Helix debuted this week. Helix comes from an executive producer of the Battlestar Galactica reboot and follows a team of scientists who go to the Arctic to investigate a disease outbreak. Could the show become Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA ) answer to AMC Networks' (NASDAQ: AMCX ) wildly popular zombie series, The Walking Dead?
Helix premieres Jan. 10 on the Syfy network and stars sci-fi television veterans Jeri Ryan, who portrayed Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager, and The 4400's Billy Campbell. It's an interesting premise with a strong cast and creator. But, could the show find success on par with The Walking Dead?
Comcast's syfy tough love
Higher-budget shows developed for the Syfy network tend to have an outpouring of financial support at the beginning. This past spring, the channel debuted the futuristic series Defiance and simultaneously launched an accompanying video game. That paid off to an average of 3.2 million viewers per episode, making Defiance the second-highest rated scripted original to air on the station. (Warehouse 13, which is in its last season, is the top-rated original.)
But, what Comcast gives, Comcast can take away. Helix producer, Ron Moore, found out the hard way when not one, but two Battlestar Galactica prequel projects were nixed early. Caprica at least made it for a full season, and Blood and Chrome was scrapped as a series before it even aired, instead becoming 10 short web episodes and one televised movie.
If Helix falters at the start, Comcast could throw the series into the cancellation heap. A strong initial showing would result in more financial assistance as a tailwind. Could Helix prove as popular as AMC's smash zombie series? It's unlikely, but expect to see Helix's marketing playing up its outbreak angle to invite comparisons to The Walking Dead.
AMC's current position was set with the 2007 launch of Mad Men, which became not only a popular show, but also a cultural phenomenon. Breaking Bad followed a year later and gained a dedicated viewer base that nearly broke the Internet with comments and Tweets when the show ended in September.
So, viewers were up for giving AMC the benefit of the doubt when it announced that it would start airing a show that was based on a popular comic book series. Season one served as a taste test with only six episodes, but ended with 5.97 million viewers -- an impressive feat for a debuting show in the horror genre, which tends not to do well on television.
The Walking Dead continued to gain traction, even through behind-the-scenes staffing changes and a split second season. Like a zombie horde shuffling some live bait, the show continued to build momentum. The Walking Dead's fourth season premiere in October attracted a whopping 16.1 million viewers. Broadcast networks would normally do a fervent happy dance over numbers half that good.
The chances of Syfy having an answer to The Walking Dead are pretty slim. But, that's OK since The Walking Dead is a bit of an anomaly. Helix would serve the station well if it becomes the next Defiance.
Comcast's best bet, if Helix makes it through season one alive, is to quickly put episodes up on Netflix. Breaking Bad creator, Vince Gilligan, gave the streaming service credit for his show's audience growth, thanks to viewers having marathon watching sessions to get caught up on the story.
Foolish final thoughts
It's foolish (with a little "f") to predict the success of a show months before it airs. It's doubtful that Helix could match The Walking Dead's numbers because the latter's performance was a surprise of its own. But, if Helix draws an initial audience, Comcast will cough up more money and help Helix have a future.
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