'Walking Dead' premiere gets fall's biggest rating

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The third season premiere of a basic cable zombie drama just delivered a bigger rating in the adult demo than any entertainment series this fall — including all broadcast shows.

Sunday night’s third season premiere of The Walking Dead delivered a huge 10.9 million viewers for its first telecast. But what’s really impressive is the show’s adults 18-49 demo rating of a 5.8.

That’s stunning.

The closest broadcast entertainment programs has gotten this fall to that number is ABC’s Modern Family season premiere that pulled a 5.5 (all these are apples-to-apples next-day ratings, not including DVR). Football has delivered bigger numbers, but that’s sports and we’re talking entertainment programming. And AMC accomplished this rating with an extra disadvantage — not having one of its major distributors, Dish Network, on board due to its carriage contract dispute (imagine how many more viewers the episode might have had with Dish). And of course that’s aside from AMC’s other major disadvantage of being a cable network that’s only in a fraction of U.S. households compared to the Big Four broadcasters.

The Walking Dead was already the the most successful basic cable drama of all time in the adult demo. Last night was up more than 50 percent from season two. And if you include The Walking Dead‘s encore telecast in the mix — which is a common habit for cable networks when touting their ratings — the total viewer number rises to 15.2 million. Sure, it’s two airings, but still … that’s edging into NCIS territory.

This hasn’t been a great fall for broadcast so far. Three of the four major networks are down compared to last fall, with NBC — aided by The Voice — rising somewhat. For a cable show to come along and prove that getting a huge rating in the valuable adult demo for a third-year show is still very possible must give some in the industry pause. Broadcasters, after all, turned down The Walking Dead. As the show’s writer Robert Kirkman told EW.com: “There definitely was resistance to dive into the genre. [Network executives] were like, ‘I don’t know if we want dead people eating people on our network.’ That makes sense.”

Interestingly, the biggest new drama of the fall in the adult demo is NBC’s Revolution, which as I’ve pointed out, plays a bit like The Walking Dead without zombies (or people eating people).

Last night’s premiere will probably be remembered as the hour that set a record for zombie killing. How many was that? Seventy? Eighty? After last season’s fan complaint of too much farm chatting and not enough zombie killing, the third season premiere’s orgy of kill-shots surely satisfied fan blood lust (though left me wanting an Xbox controller in my hands).

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