If AMC's 'Turn' Can’t Be 'The Walking Dead,' Can it Hope to be 'Breaking Bad'?

On Sunday, April 6, AMC Networks (NASDAQ: AMCX  ) debuted its historical fiction drama, Turn, which follows the lives of spies in Revolutionary America. The show netted 2.1 million viewers. That might seem low, but at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, it was competing with Game of Thrones, as well as CBS's Academy of Country Music Awards .

A scene from episode 4 of Turn. Photo by Antony Platt/AMC.

Still, it's not a stellar opening when compared to hits like The Walking Dead, and given that ratings have dropped in subsequent episodes, we might be quick to write off Turn as a moneymaker for AMC. But that would be premature. Instead, it's important to consider Turn's ratings in the larger context of the network's approach toward original scripted series, and not just in comparison to the numbers from Game of Thrones.

Ratings alipping
Turn's ratings dropped the following two weeks. The April 13 airing brought in 1.87 million viewers with a .61 share of the 18-49 demographic and April 20 saw a further drop to 1.39 million viewers with a .36 in the demo .

By comparison, The Walking Dead averaged 3.5 million adults 18-49 alone each Sunday night its first season in 2010 , making it the most watched drama by adults on basic cable that year. This year, the show's Season 4 finale drew in a record 15.7 million total viewers and 10.2 million viewers 18-49 .

The decline in ratings could indicate that Turn may not be a hit for the network that cited original series as a strong source of revenue growth in 2013 . After all, the price of a 30-second ad on The Walking Dead in 2013 cost advertisers an average of $326,00 per spot, beating out perennial CBS hit, The Big Bang Theory ($317,160) and Fox's American Idol ($281,600 ).

What's in a Number?
But that doesn't mean AMC will rush to cancel Turn just because it can't produce Dead-like numbers just yet. After all, in its series premiere in January 2008, the acclaimed Breaking Bad drew a meager 1.41 million viewers and Mad Men logged only 1.64 million when it premiered in July 2007 .

In those cases, patience paid off in advertising revenue for AMC. Thirty-second commercials during the finale of Breaking Bad reportedly ran for $250,000 each , and the network was charging as much as $400,000 as airtime drew closer .

In it's sixth season, the cost of a 30-second spot on Mad Men was only around $60,000 , however, it's important to note that the price reflects a CPM of $63.99, which is about 35% higher than the average broadcast network CPM . Additionally, AMC recently announced that they will not sell ad space for Mad Men's 2015 series finale at upfronts as planned, so they can capitalize on higher rates closer to the airtime in what is known as the scatter market.

Solid starts, but fast finishes
But the network isn't always patient with its freshman series. In fact, 2010's conspiracy thriller Rubicon debuted to 2 million viewers, making it highest rated scripted series premiere at the time. However, the show was canceled after one season, averaging 1.6 million viewers per episode .

Similarly, British adaptation Low Winter Sun debuted to even better numbers, drawing 2.5 million people in its August 2013 premiere , but also lived for just one season and averaged 1.2 million viewers each week .

But if the premiere and first season numbers are relatively comparable, why are some series kept and others discarded? And what should we look for with Turn?

Why play the waiting game?
While ratings are certainly a factor in renewing a show and securing advertisers, AMC places value on critical and demographic success. Consider for a moment the socioeconomic status of Mad Men viewers. Almost half of the show's regular audience earns over $100,000 a year, making it very attractive to advertisers .

More significantly though, the show earned significant critical praise in its early seasons. Mad Men won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama in its first season and the pilot episode, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" won writer Matthew Weiner the Emmy for Outsanding Writing for a Drama Series." Star Jon Hamm was also nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series .

Hamm lost that year to Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston. It was also Breaking Bad's first season and creator Vince Gilligan was nominated for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series for the pilot episode. The following season the show was nominated for Outstanding Drama Series .

What's in the cards for Turn?
Those looking to predict the future of Turn should consider more than just the numbers. It's critical to consider AMC's history and willingness to play the waiting game to let a show build its core audience.

Initial reviews in The Hollywood Reporter  and Los Angeles Times  indicate that the show may be off to a slow start, but it's too soon to count this one out. If it becomes a fan or Television Academy favorite, it could pay off for AMC's stock in the coming years.

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