In a three-way race that saw votes going to FX and a revitalized HBO, AMC thrived on the strength of its dead. Seething with self-righteousness and desperate for deliverance, the human survivors that populate The Walking Dead are becoming harder to distinguish from the ravenous corpses roaming the post-apocalyptic countryside—and viewers are eating it up. The most-watched series in cable history among the 18-49 set, The Walking Dead represents the apotheosis of AMC’s antihero stance—the literal evocation of spiritual rot. Don Draper and Walter White would be very much at home here. Not since HBO aired new installments of The Sopranos and The Wire has a network so faithfully (and relentlessly) captured the moral compromise of an age.
While uncompromisingly dark dramas like Sons of Anarchy are FX’s stock in trade, the network has insinuated itself with comedy nerds by way of the outré hits Louie, The League, Archer, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. When your rivals are poaching your wares—Comedy Central scooped up the off-net rights to Philly for $400,000 per episode—you’re on to something.
In September, ESPN was the first NFL partner to re-up its TV contract with the league, signing an eight-year, $15.5 billion deal that will keep Monday Night Football in the ABC Sports family through 2021. Adweek readers were nearly unanimous in selecting the sports net; the $1.7 billion in ad sales ESPN stands to bring in this year made it official.
While ABC Family does brisk business with millennials, the channel’s reach isn’t limited to those who are still on the hunt for a learner’s permit. The success of original series like The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Pretty Little Liars has allowed the Disney net to position itself as a must-buy for clients targeting women 18-49. Its biggest franchise remains “25 Days of Christmas,” a holiday stunt that offers classic Rankin/Bass specials, original movies, and theatricals.
Original series Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and Swamp People are among the most-watched unscripted efforts on basic cable, so much so that History in Q3 finished second in the cable race for adults 18-49. As such, its ad sales staff this year is on track to eclipse the $350 million mark, no thanks to a certain Irish bootlegger in The Kennedys.
The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart delights in his role as a twinkly-eyed, despairing Walter Cronkite for a generation that gets its news from its Twitter feed. Lead-out Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report embodies the shameless hucksterism of cable’s screaming heads, who have made a cottage industry out of presenting extreme views to an audience that doesn’t ask questions. Together, they’re the dream ticket for an election season that promises to offer the gravitas of a hot-dog eating contest.
No one’s likely to replicate its five-year winning streak in the cable ratings, but USA’s clear vision is an industry model. Its series are shot with USA’s “blue skies” filter—literally a guiding principle that colors its cop/doctor/spy/shrink dramas with an upbeat quirkiness. Homegrown series like Burn Notice and Royal Pains, and WWE Raw get a rise from viewers.
Think the civilization of Dante, Michelangelo, and Mr. Francis Albert Sinatra will reach its full fruition in a perma-tanned goomba sporting an Ed Hardy shirt? Relax. Jersey Shore is just a TV show—albeit one instrumental in saving MTV’s pancetta. In its fourth season, it averaged 7.3 million viewers, capping an unbelievable summer in which the network and its siblings earned nearly $745 million in ad sales revenue.
If the personalities who inhabit the Food Network aren’t to everyone’s taste—Paula Deen’s “recipe” for preparing English peas (open can, melt butter) reads like a parody of her folksy, cholesterol-spiking shtick–the channel has a read on how “real” Americans eat. (The foodies can sulk and saute their way on over to the Cooking Channel.) Advertisers bet big on Guy Fieri, et al.–last year Food took in $477 million in sponsor bucks.
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