Over on The Los Angeles Times this week, Sarah Barnett — who has been President of AMC Networks for just over a year — talks about the challenges of her position, as it competes in the streaming era as essentially a series of basic cable channels. Barnett is the wiz who surfaced Killing Eve as head of BBC America and boosted its ratings 87 percent by simulcasting the series on AMC in its second season. Killing Eve, as it turns out, was only made possible by extensive audience research, particularly the audience of Orphan Black:
“We did this study,” Barnett said, “and we realized the reason people liked a show like Orphan Black was not because it was sci-fi. They liked it because it was propulsive, it was surprising, and it was one of the few shows at that time that had complicated representations of women, that had a lot to say about sexual identity, that had stuff to say about women and their bodies and science. … I don’t know that we’d have gotten to Killing Eve if we hadn’t done that research.”
Obviously, the biggest asset that Barnett inherited as President of AMC is The Walking Dead universe. “I think there are endless stories to be told in this universe,” she told the Times, while also confirming what Scott Gimple has already stated, the the Rick Grimes movie will have “a lot more ambition.” It’s clearly a good series upon which to continue building a network through its “evolutionary phase” because, as Barnett notes, “The Walking Dead remains, for all of its much-talked-about decline, by far the biggest show in ad-supported [cable].”
However, Barnett does concede that ratings have obviously fallen for The Walking Dead and she pinpoints what I believe is the exact right reason for it:
In terms of the quality question, I think that with 10 seasons of television — something like ER or Grey’s Anatomy — shows go through spurts. We’ve done a lot of research on the response to it and we certainly have our own thoughts about it. It’s true to say that that season with Negan [a mega-villain played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan] became a little too hopeless for audiences. I think that there was creative intention behind it that was really smart and thoughtful, but it I think it probably pushed people to a place where it was a lot to take at a time when maybe people just didn’t want to see that.
That’s exactly right. The Walking Dead spent the better part of two seasons bumming its viewers out, and it happened to coincide with a period in history where a lot of people in America were already bummed out. The two in combination — in addition to the typical ratings erosion anyone might expect from a series in its eighth season — resulted in a significant decline. However, as the most watched basic cable series of all time, The Walking Dead had plenty of cushion, because even after losing roughly 9 million viewers an episode, it’s still easily the most watched on cable.