The National Football League has built a television empire. The Super Bowl sets ratings records year after year. Sunday Night Football has been the top show in primetime for the last two seasons. And, since moving to ESPN in 2006, Monday Night Football has consistently been the most watched cable program and owns several of the most watched shows in cable television history.
No other sport can match the ratings highs the NFL produces nor its dedicated viewership week in and week out.
But the NFL may have finally met its match from an unlikely source.
AMC's The Walking Dead has gone where no other sporting event, scripted series, reality show, or special has before — they've been able to reach NFL levels of viewership.
Two weeks ago, the Season 4 premiere of The Walking Dead now stands as the most watched non-sporting event in cable television history. After DVR viewers were factored in, it was announced that 20.2 million people took in "30 Days Without An Accident" to check in on the growth of Rick's tomato plants at the prison. An astounding 16.1 million people watched it on Sunday night, up from 12.4 million viewers for the Season 3 finale.
Even more impressive was its ratings success when compared to the competition of Sunday Night Football on NBC — again, only the most watched show in primetime. SNF beat Dead head to head on total viewers with 22.1 million for Redskins-Cowboys. However, Rick, Carl, Daryl, Michonne, Herschel and company beat the NFL in the all important 18-49 demo, which is the central focus of networks and advertisers. It scored 10.4 million viewers in the 18-49 demo, eclipsing any previous NFL game. The NFL took back that crown the next week, though. Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis drew 12.7 million viewers in the 18-49 range and almost 27 million total viewers.
Last week's episode of The Walking Dead continued its strong push, although viewership totals dropped slightly. 13.9 million total viewers and 9.1 million in the demo for Season 4's second episode that furthered the storyline of a contagion infecting the prison.
The fact that any program, especially a scripted drama series on cable could beat the NFL in the demo for even one week, or come close to touching the league's total viewership numbers on a regular basis is something not seen on television since the NFL began its rise to becoming the new American pastime. The Walking Dead isn't just competing with scripted cable series anymore, it's competing with live sporting events that are the golden goose of advertisers and television networks alike.
When the focus shifts to cable, what The Walking Dead has been able to accomplish is even more impressive. Since 2010, Monday Night Football has topped the weekly cable ratings an incredible 48 out of 53 times. Two of those upset victories belong to The Walking Dead the last 2 weeks. The only times MNF has been beaten on cable from 2010-2012 during any given week were by a presidential debate last year, an MLB playoff game in 2010, and the 2011 Rose Bowl. You can see these statistics in the charts below. Note the dominance of MNF until the last two weeks.
Weekly Cable Ratings 2010-2013
*Note: In 2012, Week 16's MNF game was played on a Saturday and thus included in the previous week's ratings.
Sure, there have been shows like Pawn Stars, Jersey Shore, and Duck Dynasty that have traded out the second spot, but no other show has beaten Monday Night Football on cable two weeks in a row like The Walking Dead has.
How did this happen? There were signs last year that The Walking Dead was becoming competitive with MNF, especially during some unattractive late season matchups that failed to deliver ratings. In fact, Monday Night Football hit four-year lows last year because of bad games and bad matchups.
But it's not like Monday Night Football or the NFL has suffered from any precipitous decline in popularity, it's just that The Walking Dead is that strong of a television product. The show certainly has a massive, loyal fanbase, even though it hasn't quite reached the critical acclaim of its AMC counterpart Breaking Bad.
What's the secret to The Walking Dead's explosion in popularity this season? It's hard to pinpoint one main source of its success, but one underrated reason may be its accessability and Netflix. Yes, Netflix.
With the dawn of Netflix, it's easier for individuals to become loyal fans of television shows than ever before. I know I'm not alone in being able to catch up with Breaking Bad before the beginning of its final season debuted on AMC even though I hadn't been around for the first four seasons. The same was true with The Walking Dead. I had never watched an episode until after the Season 4 premiere. Wanting to see what all the fuss was about and looking to fill the Heisenberg-sized hole in my life, I turned to Netflix and watched the first three seasons to get caught up. With this ability to enter into a series at any time and shows spreading by word of mouth, more and more television viewers across America are able to engage in scripted series.
It's almost the reverse phenomenon of the NFL, where viewers have to watch live or risk missing out. With The Walking Dead, the show can always add new loyal fans aboard at any time through a friend or family member's recommendation or social media buzz. It doesn't hurt that zombies have never been more popular, too. The Walking Dead has been supported by a rising wave of adoration for zombies in pop culture as seen in the theaters by movies like World War Z and video games like Call of Duty or Left 4 Dead.
Whether or not it's sustainable for The Walking Dead will be a compelling story to watch moving forward. Still though, who would have thought a show about zombies based on a comic book series could take on the NFL's television empire and not just compete, but occasionally win?
After years of being alone at the top of the television industry, the NFL finally has some company. Perhaps that's the surest sign yet that there really is a zombie apocalypse around the corner…