The NFL is losing in ratings for the first time in a long time, but not to another sport: It’s losing to zombies. The Walking Dead, AMC’s hit show and the most watched cable drama in the U.S., has beaten the NFL’s flagship programming (NBC’s Sunday Night Football) twice in the all-important 18-49 demographic. More viewers are flipping over to AMC (a cable channel) than to NBC (a broadcast network.)
This is not the sign of the zombie apocalypse for the NFL, but it should concern league headquarters. One of the major reasons the NFL is successful is that it’s tailor-made for TV. And the NFL has constructed much of its business model on the massive rights fees that come with televising games. TV networks can charge higher advertising fees and afford those rights because games are essentially DVR-proof. That said, the fact that The Walking Dead has out-rated Sunday Night Football means that the 18-49 demographic (key for both types of programming) is finding that dramas can be DVR proof as well.
As of now, this is an anomaly, but The Walking Dead (and Breaking Bad before it) has done a great job of making its show interactive through social media. People are tweeting or posting on Facebook during the show while podcasts and wrap-up shows (the Talking Dead) move the discussion immediately after the show airs. The Walking Dead’s ratings proves that it is not impossible to create programming that can go up against sports and win.
There could be myriad reasons that people are changing the channel away from the NFL: the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson incidents, head injuries and violence concerns, programming over-saturation and lack of competitive games. Still, if the NFL wants to stay at the top of television, it had better find the cure for the viewership-poaching zombie show.
Michael Colangelo is Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute and Senior Editor of The Fields of Green.