You would not think Jimmy McGill capable of helping anything or anyone. He is an ambulance-chasing lawyer who survives on a string of low-paying public defender stints, betrays the confidence of would-be private clients, and eventually sets up a practice under an assumed name.
Jimmy -- who will eventually take the alias "Saul Goodman" -- is the main character of the new AMC Networks (NASDAQ:AMCX) TV series, Better Call Saul. In contrast to his struggles in the early episodes, the story of Jimmy/Saul is the latest breakout hit on cable TV. So far, the series is a clear win for a company that could use one.
Better Call Saul is a prequel of sorts to Breaking Bad, the successful AMC series from several years back that featured our leading man as a supporting character.
He is not playing a secondary role to anyone now -- Better Call Saul shattered the viewership record for a cable series premiere, racking up a total audience of around 9.8 million on the first night of a two-day premiere earlier this month. That was even better than the 2010 premiere of the incumbent hit zombie saga, The Walking Dead.
The two subsequent episodes of the show also scored big, topping the cable TV viewership charts.
For AMC Networks, the lawyer and zombies together make a strong one-two punch for its flagship channel, AMC (the company also operates SundanceTV and IFC, among others). However, other series on the channel are not hitting quite as hard.
The five-season run of "Breaking Bad" ended in 2013, and the only other buzz-worthy AMC show at the moment, the fine period drama Mad Men, is seven episodes away from the end of its run. Regardless, although the latter has a devoted following, its ratings are comparatively modest. Mad Men is essentially a cult series.
AMC Networks has tried to develop other hits. So far, these attempts have struggled to find their audiences. The channel has thrown the dice with a trio of period pieces -- Hell on Wheels, Halt and Catch Fire, and TURN: Washington's Spies. None has the viewership of The Walking Dead or the early episodes of Better Call Saul.
Meanwhile, the low-key espionage drama, Rubicon, lasted for only one season in 2010.
The lively dead
AMC Networks has two basic revenue streams: advertising and distribution. A popular show helps lift both. In the most recently reported quarter, each category rose by about 11% on a year-over-year basis. The company took pains to single out The Walking Dead as a key catalyst for the boost in advertising.
It attributed its original programming overall for the increase in distribution revenue, but we can assume much of this derived from its No. 1 home-grown series.
A successful show can start a virtuous circle once it enters syndication (part of the distribution category). This is what happened with Breaking Bad. It was extremely popular on Netflix, gaining viewership momentum through binge viewing.
This helped grow its audience, along with the long stretches of time between half-seasons of the show during its run (an AMC specialty), which built anticipation and buzz. A bigger audience, of course, attracts more advertisers.
Speed-dialing a hit
This is why the strong viewership numbers of its newest series are so encouraging. The initial success of the show bodes well for increased advertising demand, plus potential early graduation into a sweet syndication deal. This could get that virtuous circle spinning with momentum.
Saul seems to be succeeding so far -- AMC Networks and its investors hope his phone keeps ringing.
Eric Volkman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of both AMC Networks and Netflix. 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.