AMC's (NASDAQ:AMCX) smash hit The Walking Dead wrapped its fourth season on Sunday night with its displaced cast finally (for the most part) reunited. As fans remember, after having the characters remain stationary for the first half of the season, the show shook up the formula for its back-eight run by fragmenting the core group, but did the new formula help boost the ratings and viewer interest?
Live together, die alone
Lost fans remember the above line fondly as it became a battle cry for the survivors of Oceanic #815. It also proved to be a lifesaver for the cast of The Walking Dead this season.
After staying in their somewhat secure prison setting for the first half of season 4 (and most of season 3), producers blew everything up and scattered their characters all across the land forcing them to rely on each other to survive. It shook the characters out of their already fragile comfort zone and shook the audiences out of theirs as well.
So now instead of stories focused on the overall group audiences were treated to weekly installments dedicated to often times two or three of our regulars a week. For TV's biggest show that strategy was a risk, but the producers know a thing or two about taking big risks.
As expected, initially it was offsetting as audiences weren't prepared for it, but eventually it blossomed into an amazing storytelling device and provided some scarier moments than anything a stray walker could cause. The shift also produced one of the show's most controversial twists ever and put an exclamation mark on the "nobody's safe" mantra.
Did it work?
Simply put...yes. However it's a weird comparison because overall the entire season's been up year to year (as it was the year before). Yet what's most interesting is what's NOT in the numbers: namely its competition. The show returned the same weekend as the start of the Sochi Olympic Winter Games and trounced them in the demo … three weekends in a row. While the Games had more overall viewers, the 18-49 demo is what matters most to advertisers and Dead walked all over the competition. It also outperformed a slew of new programming that never had a chance against the AMC sensation.
That said, while last Sunday's finale set a new season finale record for the series with 15.7 million viewers, it did fail to top its season premiere for the first time ever. If you look at the numbers from past seasons (minus the first one which only ran for six episodes), you'll notice a pattern had emerged. The show has certain milestone moments each season (the premiere, the midseason premiere, the finale) and despite losing a handful of viewers between those episodes, the fans usually come back in full force at each of the touch points.
But this year, the finale only matched its midseason premiere numbers. Now realistically that's only a 400,000 viewer decline from premiere to finale, which is tiny in the long run. And to be clear netting over 15 million viewers is nothing to snark about -- any network would love those numbers.
Still it's worth noting as it unexpectedly breaks a pattern. Likely that decline can be attributed to increased competition on Sunday night or even possibly a small percentage being turned off by the show's recent increasingly violent episodes, but season to season overall the show's looking at a 20% increase.
Turn, turn, turn
The trick is now going to be utilizing those big numbers to launch a rookie series. AMC's biggest weapon in its arsenal is Walking Dead, but executives haven't been able to use it to launch a new big hit. With Breaking Bad gone and Mad Men ending, it is becoming a concern. While AMC was able to launch a companion talk show, Talking Dead (which has also seen massive ratings), one is dependent on the other and the network knows it needs to build franchises outside of its current slate.
Tomorrow the network will debut Turn, which has gotten a lot of promotion during Dead, with the hope that it can convert viewers and entice them to stick around. The series, which looks at America's first spy ring, is an entirely different genre, but because of AMC's history with launching top series and the network's confidence in the show, many think it will be enough to help garner at least initial interest with viewers (and then it's up to the show to carry them from there).
Turn is going to set the pace for AMC's original fare in 2014 and to be successful it will need to debut somewhere around 3.5 million to 4.5 million viewers and then hold onto that audience. Should it reach those numbers, it would put it closer to Hell on Wheels territory than Dead, but nobody's expecting massive numbers and nobody's expecting it to match Breaking Bad's final episodes (yet).
If Turn can perform modestly, the network can balance it with lead-out Mad Men and then utilize both programs to then help launch its second original drama, Halt and Catch Fire in June. What can't happen is the anemic numbers put up by last year's Low Winter Sun, which started with 2.5 million viewers and ended around 600,000.
The idea here is that by the time Dead returns in October, two new original dramas will have premiered (with a third on the way) and the success or failure of those shows will reveal just how reliant the network has to be on the zombie drama.
It goes without saying AMC would be in a bad position if its first new show of the year flat out tanks, but that's not expected to be the case. Many hope Turn will be a turning point for the network, but we'll have to wait until Monday to know for sure.
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Brett Gold has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends AMC Networks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.