AMC Networks Doesn’t Need a Big Upfront Event. It Has The Walking Dead

With new shows, network targets millennials every Sunday

AMC Networks is one of many companies that have moved away from pricey upfront spectacles in favor of smaller, more intimate gatherings with clients. But it also has one of the easiest upfront sells thanks to a little franchise called The Walking Dead.

As the company—which includes AMC, SundanceTV, IFC, We tv and BBC America—holds dinners with agency groups this month, the ratings of AMC's (and cable's) two biggest scripted series, The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, are doing much of the heavy lifting for Scott Collins, evp of ad sales for AMC Networks.

The Walking Dead's Season 6 finale, which aired April 3, brought in 18.4 million viewers in live-plus-3 ratings, including 11.5 million adults in the 18-49 demo (a 9.1 rating). While its live-plus-same-day ratings were down 10 percent in total viewers (14.2 million) and 15 percent in the demo (6.9 rating) from the Season 5 finale, the numbers still put The Walking Dead comfortably in the lead as the No. 1 series in cable or broadcast among 18- to 49-year-olds.

The following week, Fear the Walking Dead kicked off its Season 2 with 8.8 million total viewers and 5.3 million adults ages 18-49 (4.9) in live-plus-3. That's a significant drop from original recipe Walking Dead, but it's still enough to make Fear—which AMC renewed for a third season on Friday—the No. 2 cable series in the 18-49 demo this season, behind only Walking Dead.

With a 15-episode season of Fear the Walking Dead (which will increase to 16 episodes in Season 3), AMC is  airing a Walking Dead franchise show 31 Sundays this year.

"In last year's upfront, we had a bit of a bold statement, saying, obviously you've become accustomed to spending a certain amount of money with us in fourth and first [quarter] because we are a top five cable network in fourth quarter and first quarter, obviously driven a lot by Walking and Talking [Dead], and then we launched [Breaking Bad prequel Better Call] Saul. We wanted to make the statement of, 'We are now going to be a top five cable network all year long,'" Collins said.

AMC finished 2015 fourth among all cable networks in the 18-49 demo, and it could climb even higher this year. Collins touted the "consistency" of using The Walking Dead to launch Fear the Walking Dead (which will be followed by Talking Dead all season). The first half of Fear's second season will lead into the launch of Preacher, AMC's highly anticipated new comic book adaptation, on May 22. Then comes the second half of the season for Fear, which leads into the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead in October.

"Every Sunday night, a huge millennially focused fan base can get something from AMC all year long now," said Collins.

This is the second year AMC Networks has opted for upfront dinners with agency groups that are attended by CEO Josh Sapan, COO Ed Carroll and all of the network's GMs, who "will be at each of the tables."

"And we'll place the individuals that support those brands so they can have the conversation—they'll experience it together," Collins said. "We'll be focusing a lot of time on what's next on AMC, but they'll get a feeling about every one of our networks."

Their big upfront pitch: "A lot of other groups may be up with one network, but then they're down in two or three others. We come with a great strong portfolio," said Collins.

In addition to AMC's No. 4 finish in the 18-49 demo, WE tv "had its best year ever," said Collins, while IFC offers significant brand partnership opportunities. And BBC America and WE boast shows with passionate fan bases.

"When you combine the passionate viewers we deliver in the fan bases of these very popular shows, that really catapults us ahead of the pack when we create short-form content," Collins said.

It's all led by AMC, which boasts that it finished 2015 with 30 percent of the GRPs (gross ratings points) of 18-49 viewers in cable scripted dramas, nearly triple what it was doing a few years ago. And with new series Preacher, Feed the Beast (starring David Schwimmer) and miniseries The Night Manager (starring Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston) joining new seasons of Better Call Saul (its Season 2 finale aired Monday night), Into the Badlands, Turn: Washington's Spies, and Halt and Catch Fire, the network has "so much more content than ever before," Collins said.

There is news at the company's other networks as well. After merging its AMC and SundanceTV ad sales departments early last year, AMC Networks recently combined its IFC and WE tv teams with Allison Clarke (who previously oversaw WE tv) heading up the new unit. BBC America still has a separate ad sales department.

"Someone might say on its surface, WE tv seems more female, and IFC is young men. But it makes all the sense in the world," said Collins, because advertisers can extend their reach with audiences they may not have previously considered. "It's less meetings that buyers have to make. It's a little easier."

As part of her new duties, Clarke is expanding WE tv's WE Suite, which debuted during last year's upfront, offering advertisers unprecedented access to its star David Tutera. This year, the Suite will extend from Fridays to Thursdays, giving advertisers the same unique access to L.A. Hair star Kim Kimble. Her show, along with Braxton Family Values, which returns in May, have helped make WE tv the No. 1 network in cable on Thursdays among African-American woman and African-American adults in the 18-49 and 25-54 demos.

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