The Walking Dead: How AMC Harnessed the Power of Fandom
The Walking Dead has one of the most passionate fan communities on TV and AMC knows how to give it what it wants.
On Sept. 14, AMC launched The Walking Dead Fan Rewards Club. It was a creative new concept from the cable network that enabled them to give back to the show’s rabid fans while keeping them in the AMC fold. This how the program works: Walking Dead fans are able to collect “points” for activities like watching the show, buying merch online, or posting about the show on their social media.
This is a novel, intriguing concept. It’s also not one we’re used to seeing on television. Phrases like “Rewards Club” are often reserved for corporate entities that interact with what we view as “consumers” and not “fans.” Dominos has a rewards club (called “Piece of the Pie”), Starbucks has a rewards club (“My Starbucks Rewards program”), and even Pampers has a rewards club (“Pampers Gifts to Grow”).
What AMC has done with The Walking Dead is finally bridge the gap between corporate speak and geek speak. Words like “fan” and “consumer” often mean the same thing. If Lost represents the time that fandom culture went mainstream, The Walking Dead represents the time that fandom culture went corporate.
I understand there is a rough connotation that comes along with the phrase “corporate.” Hell, “going corporate” is not often a phrase someone uses to celebrate something. In this instance, however, I want to try to remove The Walking Dead as scripted art and entertainment and instead talk about the outsized cultural entity that is The Walking Dead fandom. The show has its struggles and certainly won’t be compared to Picasso’s “Guernica” anytime soon, but it is art. The fandom around it, however, has been incorporated under the AMC corporate umbrella in fascinating ways.
We all know that geekdom is celebrated (and some would argue exploited) in the mainstream in ways far beyond what Dungeons & Dragons players in the ’80s could have ever imagined. Swords and shields dominate premium cable in the form of Game of Thrones. And in cinema, it’s going to be a long time before anyone has a better year than Disney with its twin blockbuster hydra of Star Wars and the Marvel movies.
Still, The Walking Dead represents the most interesting case for how giant entertainment entities come to turn “fans” into “consumers.”
Step one is to create something good. Well, something within a fandom-friendly, entertaining genre that’s good. The Walking Dead has certainly creatively stagnated in some ways in its later seasons but remember what the show was like back in 2010? AMC could not have possibly knocked the ball further out of the park.
The network had already earned viewers attention and trust with legitimate television masterpieces like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, which afforded AMC the chance to take a risk with a genre show. So the network took a much-loved horror-adjacent comic book, brought in Hollywood heavy-hitter Frank Darabont to shepherd it, and released one of the best genre TV pilots ever, “Days Gone Bye,” right in time for Halloween. To borrow from some of the corporate examples above, “Days Gone Bye” was AMC’s chocolate lava crunch cakes, caramel frappucino, and 5-star skin care diaper.
It didn’t take long for The Walking Dead to develop a legitimate and vibrant fan community. Just anecdotally, I know there are only two TV series I’ve attended honest-to-goodness watch parties for: Lost and The Walking Dead. You’ve likely gone to one too if you consider yourself a fan of the show. Even if you just Google “Walking Dead watch party” these days, you’re likely to find plenty of options at bars well in advance of season 8’s premiere.
Traditionally, networks have earned their money by proving to advertisers via services like Nielsen ratings that they have viewers. Now that entertainment has become so fractured and specialized, entertainment companies aren’t just looking for viewers, they’re looking for fans. And by the end of season one, that’s exactly what The Walking Dead had.
The Walking Dead subreddit currently has more than 401,000 registered users ready to discuss the show. Compare that to some other fandom-friendly offerings. Netflix’s Stranger Things has a subreddit with around 140,000 users, FX’s American Horror Story has around 67,000. Game of Thrones has over 1 million, but that show is absolutely freakish in its mass appeal. Seriously, the thing’s a monster.
Regardless, people clicking “subscribe” to a subreddit isn’t a perfect measure of fandom size or engagement, but it’s a start. Social media is in many ways the new office watercolor and in that respect, The Walking Dead clearly passes the bar as watercolor entertainment. At the very least, it’s more than fair to claim that The Walking Dead has what we would refer to as a “fandom.”
Once AMC achieved the creation of a fandom, it’s next step was to begin efforts to take control of it. Again, that has a negative connotation, but I mean that in purely morally neutral terms. AMC execs are not gathered around a dimly-lit study conspiring about how to exploit a TV show’s fanbase while expensive cigar smoke ascends to the ceiling. They’re just savvy business folk and they know how to vertically integrate. Here is TV’s most savvy businessman, Jack Donaghy, explaining what vertical integration is.
“Imagine that your favorite corn chip manufacturer also owned the number one diahrrhea medication,” Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) explains.
With a massive hit on its hands, AMC sought to make a second show that would turn discussion about their cash cow into a product. Enter The Talking Dead.
In hindsight, it’s kind of weird that we didn’t make a bigger deal of The Talking Dead’s existence. Sure, there was some critical snickering about whether there needed to be a whole hour on TV devoted to recapping, deconstructing, and discussing a silly zombie show. But early critics failed to see that fans were almost always talking about this silly zombie show – they were talking about it at watch parties, on social media threads, and fan forums. The fact that AMC decided to get in on the chatter is rather ingenious.
The Talking Dead also debuted far earlier than you remember. AMC launched the Chris Hardwick-hosted post-episode talk show at the beginning of season 2. That means that for all of The Walking Dead’s soon-to-be 100 episodes, only six have not been followed by a talk show.
The Talking Dead is actually good, thanks to Hardwick’s undeniable charm, but it almost doesn’t even matter if it is or not. The show is really just AMC’s opportunity to monopolize more of Walking Dead fans’ time and attention.
The Talking Dead serves to deconstruct the show in almost real time. This is not unusual for television or fandom culture in general. Sometimes it seems like all of television was created back in the 20th century just so one day we could all argue in an A.V. Club comments section. What is unusual, however, is that it’s a product from the show’s corporate creators intended directly for the fans or consumers of that product. And The Talking Dead goes far beyond just wanting Walking Dead fans to have their eyes on AMC for an extra hour. The show also helped tremendously with shepherding fan engagement on multiple, non-TV platforms.
Hardwick, like a millennial Bob Barker, hosts the show with an eye towards generating social media conversation. The Talking Dead is an outlet for the creative forces behind the show to discuss their creation, but it’s also an outlet for fans to participate in online polls and on social media. If AMC were merely interested in viewership, they would just roll directly into the nerd-adjacent Comic Book Men after The Walking Dead. With The Talking Dead, however, they’re able to keep not only viewership but also conversation going.
That leads to another interesting aspect of the show’s fandom. Despite, those large subreddit numbers, there are not many other AMC-independent fan outlets to discuss and celebrate the show. Fan forums like “Walking Dead Forums” and “Roamers and Lurkers” receive a relatively paltry amount of visitors for a show with around 15 million viewers an episode.
There are potential mitigating factors for this. Perhaps the existence of social media powerhouses like Reddit downplay the need for the thriving discussion boards that existed during the days of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, and Lost. Or maybe this is a result of the show’s recent creative struggles. Still, it’s hard not to notice that this is a seismic shift in the way that fandom interacts with itself.
There is one final way in which AMC interacts with the show’s fandom and treats them as consumers. I mentioned earlier that we would be divorcing the show from the phenomenon but we’re going to have to dive back into the show for a moment.
The Walking Dead has gone through some major creative and personnel changes throughout the years. Initial creator Frank Darabont was let go partway through season two of the show, which led to one of the all-time great behind the scenes TV shitshows. There are many potential reasons for Darabont’s departure. AMC alleges that Darabont was erratic and difficult to deal with behind the scenes. Darabont alleges that the network was unwilling to give him creative freedom or an adequate budget. Regardless of the reasoning, Darabont was jettisoned and Glen Mazarra took over. Mazarra’s version of the show happened to hew more closely to the original comic source material. Comic characters like Michonne and Tyreese were introduced and the characters came to settle at the infamous prison setting.
Then Mazarra left and writer Scott Gimple took over. Gimple’s version of the show was even more faithful to the source material, and by the time season five rolled around, it was fairly easy for comic readers to predict the various beats for each subsequent season.
It’s impossible to know the true reasoning behind both Darabont and Mazarra’s exits. Still, it cannot be denied that each time The Walking Dead has undergone a regime change, the show has become more faithful to the comic. We could read absolutely nothing into that, if we wanted. The comics are very good and perhaps each subsequent showrunner has realized that to be the case. But there is a certain air of “give the people what they want” on AMC’s end that cannot be ignored.
When season seven struggled to grab its audience in its first eight episodes – many of the people involved with the show began to give public assurances that they had heard the fan community’s concerns and that a brighter future was ahead.
At a conference shortly before the second half of season seven premiered, producer Gale Anne Hurd assured audiences that they were being heard and that the show tone down the violence a bit.
“We were able to look at the feedback on the level of violence. We did tone it down for episodes we were still filming for later on in the season,” she said.
Then, at the Paley Center for Media’s 34th annual PaleyFest, showrunner Gimple promised not only a definitive season seven finale but also a return to greatness in season eight.
“The season finale will be a conclusion that promises an epic story ahead. It’s about setting up season eight but also beyond,” he said.
Even the stars got involved with the apologies. Norman Reedus (Daryl Dixon) told Entertainment Weekly:
I was saying that about the first half. I think part of that chatter you’re talking about came from me. But you know, it’s true: You can’t make everybody happy about everything. But we try, and you have to keep the story moving forward at all times or you just tell the same story over and over again. But I know new actors that came onto this show that were like, “Man, I miss the old group,” and they were playing new roles this season. So I know that everybody felt it.
These are creative people talking about their art in a manner that we’re more accustomed to seeing from petroleum companies after an oil spill. The cast and crew’s reaction to the criticism was less “this is our singular, creative vision and we’re sorry to hear you don’t like it,” and more “we know we kind of took things too slow this time but don’t worry, we’ll speed the plot up to keep you happy.”
The language the creative team and actors to speak to its viewers seems to address them as both fans and consumers. In some respects, that is actually good news. Fans who care enough about genre shows to develop thriving fandom communities around them have historically been all but ignored. On the other hand, AMC has put great effort into bringing fans entirely into their umbrella.
It’s not out of the goodness of their nerd-loving hearts, of course. There is gold to be found in them fandom hills. Still, in post-millennium Western culture, there is probably no better metric for whether a group has arrived than when a corporate entity desires their purchasing power. Whether one views it as a net positive or negative, it’s hard to deny that AMC has harnessed the awesome power of fandom.