Third Walking Dead Series, Best Christmas Ever Expansion Should Power AMC Networks’ Upfront

BBC America will devote a full day of programming each week to BBC nature and wildlife shows

AMC's third Walking Dead series, which will focus on two young female protagonists, will air on the network next year. Gene Page/AMC
Headshot of Jason Lynch

AMC Networks is barreling into its week of upfront events with several big announcements that should supercharge its upfront talks, including its decision to greenlight a third TV series in its Walking Dead franchise, which will debut next year.

The company is also expanding its Best Christmas Ever marathon, which premiered last December on AMC, to all five of its networks this year (AMC, IFC, SundanceTV, BBC America and We TV), and will be devoting a full day of programming on BBC America each Saturday to premium nature and wildlife shows from BBC.

For the next three nights, AMC Networks is inviting agencies to what it is calling the AMCN Hideaway, a multilevel space in downtown New York with a “speakeasy feel,” said Scott Collins, president of ad sales.

There, the company will be making its upfront pitch, with Collins speaking alongside We TV president and gm Marc Juris, as well as Sarah Barnett, who was named president of entertainment networks group for the company last November, after Charlie Collier departed to become Fox Entertainment CEO.

The trio will be touting AMC Networks’ momentum compared to other media companies: season to date, they are the only ones up year over year in C3 in both adults 18-49 and adults 25-54. And out of the 108 cable networks measured by Nielsen, they are home to four of the only 20 networks to see year-over-year C3 increases in those two key demos (only AMC has slipped).

The company looks to keep that streak going by officially picking up a third Walking Dead series, which will start production this summer and debut on AMC in 2020. The series is being co-created by Scott M. Gimple, chief content officer of The Walking Dead universe, and Walking Dead writer-producer Matt Negrete, who will serve as showrunner.

The addition of the third series in the franchise, alongside The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, will allow AMC to run uninterrupted Walking Dead franchise episodes on consecutive Sundays “from post-Super Bowl Sunday all the way through Thanksgiving, before we turn the switch on for Best Christmas Ever,” said Collins.

While details about the new series are still under wraps, it will feature a pair of young female protagonists coming of age during the zombie apocalypse. In the other two shows, “the young female characters increasingly are the ones who get the biggest response from fans,” said Barnett, who said that Walking Dead remains a “phenomenon” despite its ratings decline, which is in line with other cable ratings drops.

The Walking Dead remains the top-rated entertainment cable series in the 18-49 demo (and is behind only This Is Us when broadcast shows are added to the mix), and “functions as a brilliant promotional platform for other things, so our continual ambition around doubling down on the Walking Dead universe is undiminished, and in fact grows,” said Barnett.

Also in the works are Walking Dead movies, some of which will star Andrew Lincoln, who recently departed the series, but “we can’t talk about that at this point” or whether any of those movies will be sold in the upfront, said Barnett.

Spreading holiday cheer

AMC’s Best Christmas Ever, which was a big reason that holiday TV became cable’s hottest battleground last year, will return Nov. 25-Dec. 25, but the company is expanding it to all five networks, following the lead of Disney, which turned Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas throughout its portfolio. IFC, We TV, BBC America and SundanceTV will all feature holiday programming under the “Best Christmas Ever” umbrella, and the networks are already creating content featuring talent talking about their favorite holiday memories.

Last year’s holiday marathon increased AMC’s prime-time demo in December among adults 25-54 by 86 percent year over year, which “makes our job a lot easier going into this year’s upfront,” said Collins.

The Best Christmas Ever move is in keeping with how Barnett is thinking about the entire portfolio as “one AMC,” she said, “and how increasingly, we want to take a show that was very successful on one platform and expand it to another platform,” as the network is doing with Killing Eve, simulcasting Season 2 on both BBC America and AMC beginning this week. “We think there’s a lot of untapped audience there.”

That, in turn, offers more opportunity to “optimize and scale” the messaging of brand partners, said Barnett.

AMC Networks had sold Killing Eve in the upfront last year before the company’s simulcast plan was set, but capitalized on the shift in the scatter market, commanding “Walking Dead-like CPMs” for the series, said Collins.

If Barnett decides to repeat the simulcasting strategy for the next season of Killing Eve, she’ll also wait until after the upfront to make that decision. “We want to be led by our learnings,” she said. “If we do it for Season 3, it will be something that is sold in scatter, just as this one was.”

BBC America’s new project

Discovery isn’t the only company expanding its relationship with BBC: starting this fall, BBC America will devote every Saturday to what it is tentatively calling Project Awe, a “micro-net,” said Barnett, that will devote a full 24 hours to premium nature and wildlife content, beginning at 6 a.m. “Every Saturday, we will transform BBC America,” she said.

Project Awe will include the upcoming BBC docuseries that AMC Networks has exclusive rights to, including One Planet: Seven Worlds (airing early next year), Frozen Planet II and Planet Earth III. Among the 2,000 hours of nature programming featured annually on Project Awe will be several series from BBC’s Natural History Unit, such Planet Earth I and II, The Blue Planet, Frozen Planet, Life, Africa and Dynasties. (Discovery has exclusive streaming rights to those shows, which previously had been available on Netflix, as part of the new content deal announced last week.)

“We think there’s something uniquely powerful about natural-history documentary filmmaking,” said Barnett, who noted that AMC Networks, not Discovery, will be the “dominant” U.S. home for BBC shows over the next five years, which offers “an incredible environment for our advertisers.”

Juris will discuss We TV, which “is firing on all cylinders,” said Collins, noting that ratings for Love After Lockup’s second season were up 85 percent over Season 1.

In other upfront-related news, IFC has renewed Documentary Now!, which sends up many of the most famous documentaries, for a fourth season. No air date has been set, however, because of the busy schedules of its three executive producers: Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers.

Barnett noted that while Peak TV continues growing, the number of basic-cable scripted series is actually declining. With more than a dozen cable networks retreating from original scripted shows, AMC and FX are the only ones left for “premium, high-end content,” she said

“We feel a show like Killing Eve is the equivalent of a show like Handmaid’s Tale or Orange Is the New Black or Russian Doll—those shows that have been super-buzzy recently on [streaming]. Advertisers can’t be there,” said Barnett. “They can be here, with these shows that continue to drive the cultural conversation and come from AMC Networks.”

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.