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How The Walking Dead defeated the NFL; Bill Simmons' future landing spot

We have finally discovered the kryptonite for the NFL’s mega television ratings.

That’s right: flesh-eating zombies.

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Upon concluding the first half of its fifth season last month, an eight-episode arc that ran from Oct. 12 to Nov. 30. AMC’s The Walking Dead had topped NBC's Sunday Night Football five times out of eight weeks in the adults 18-49 demo, making it (as of last week) the No. 1 show in television for that group of viewers, the key demo for advertisers. AMC said The Walking Dead averaged 9.6 million adults in the 18-49 category for its fall 2014 run, tops across all cable and broadcast networks for a series. It’s a remarkable television feat given that the NFL simply does not get out-rated on Sundays, and it makes you wonder if other networks can glean something from AMC, short of creating a show about a zombie apocalypse.

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​"We don’t per se look at The Walking Dead in comparison to the NFL," said AMC president Charlie Collier. "What we are really trying to do is create a fan experience and an event each week that moves and engages every viewer. For fans of The Walking Dead, the show is like their favorite team playing a home game on national TV every week."

But Collier did reveal something interesting about going head to head against the NFL during an interview with Sports Illustrated last week. He said his network scheduled this year’s show with deference to the NFL’s late-season schedule and playoffs, which is why The Walking Dead ended its run on Nov. 30 and will pick up again on Feb. 8, a week after Super Bowl XLIX. Collier said network research showed that there was a lot of crossover between The Walking Dead fans and NFL fans, and out of respect for those fans, the AMC show will go on hiatus during the NFL’s most important time. It also gave AMC the opportunity to build up buzz against the NFL early in its season. If the NFL is vulnerable at all as a television play, it’s prior to Thanksgiving.

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"If I were a programmer, I would not put my broadest-skewing programs opposite Sunday Night Football but rather the shows on my roster that seem best tailored to big niches of demographics," said Variety senior television editor Brian Steinberg, who has written on the NFL's challenges in keeping a young audience. "I'd try shows that appeal to high-income audiences or women: Downton Abbey, Mad Men, The Good Wife and Madam Secretary. I might also try programs that draw extremely passionate audiences -- fan favorites, rather than everyone's favorite. So Modern Family, The Voice or The Blacklist? No. But The Simpsons or Once Upon A Time or Homeland? Sure."

Clearly, it’s a suicide mission for any network to take on the NFL on a Sunday afternoon. FOX’s late-afternoon Sunday window consistently has the highest adults 18-49 ratings for any show on television, and a FOX Sports spokesperson said the network has averaged an 8.9 rating and 11.3 million viewers in that window during the 2014 NFL season in that demographic.

But the success of The Walking Dead suggests that Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football and Sunday Night Football could be vulnerable to effective counter-programming​ among younger fans, especially early in the season. Collier, a lifelong Jets fan, said AMC spends the entire year trying to keep The Walking Dead fans engaged and activated about the show by pushing it at conventions such as Comic Con and through social media and other channels. He compared it to how the NFL uses the NFL draft to stoke interest during its offseason.

"I look at it as building the ultimate franchise for zombie fans, Walking Dead fans, and fans of great drama," Collier said. "The show has been growing for five years and what I would love to do is to truly keep their fandom fueled and engagement at a high level season after season."

As a counter to The Walking Dead’s claims of winning the coveted 18-49 adult demo, an NBC Sports spokesperson noted that The Walking Dead’s advantage comes as part of a Live +7 Days metric (meaning Dead gains millions of viewers when time-shifting DVR watchers are included). The spokesperson said that in the weeks with head-to-head time slot competition between the two shows from Oct. 12 through Nov. 30, Sunday Night Football averaged a 7.6 rating for Live +Same Day in the adults 18-49 demo, topping The Walking Dead’s 7.5 in that hour. Also worth noting is six of the eight SNF games that were part of the head-to-head competition with The Walking Dead were blowouts.

(After this column was published, an AMC spokesperson reiterated that the five weeks The Walking Dead beat Sunday Night Football this NFL season were based on live/same day viewing and not Live +7 Days. The spokesperson added that if time-shifted viewing was included in this comparison, The Walking Dead would have run the table in the adults 18-49 demo.)

NBC Sports also said SNF was well ahead of The Walking Dead if you measured strictly live viewing between the two shows from 9-10 p.m. ET. (For AMC and Sunday Night Football staffers, I am reminded of the following Mark Twain quote: "Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.")

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The Walking Dead

"The show has all the elements of a cult favorite -- gore, sci-fi, the supernatural and adventure -- but has mined a fervent cult that will tune in intensely when and if it finds something it likes," Steinberg said.

One of the few sports that fits that kind of thinking is UFC. It has great 18-34 viewership, especially among males, but likely remains too niche to grab a mega-audience. Major League Gaming, the video gaming league, also might one day have the kind of demo that could work as a (small) counter-programming play to the NFL. Pro wrestling (again, good younger demos) competes against Monday Night Football and does take a small bite out of the ESPN series. 

But what the NFL should really be worried about given the success of The Walking Dead isn’t counter-sports programming, but the idea that young men are not automatically watching football if presented with another compelling option. Non-football airing networks should pay attention to what AMC has done. The right show can take on the NFL and win. Just like killing zombies, it’s no easy feat. But it’s also not impossible.


The Noise Report​ examines some of the week's top media stories.

1. One of the biggest sports media parlor games in 2015 will be guessing what Grantland's Bill Simmons does when his ESPN contract expires later next year. Starting this month, we’ll offer monthly odds for Simmons’ next landing spot:

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ESPN (2-1): No other entity affords him more resources and distribution for the content he enjoys, and he has strong relationships with his immediate boss (Marie Donoghue), his colleagues at (where he is the editor-in-chief) and ESPN Films. The network also holds a long-term rights deal with his beloved NBA through the 2024-25 season. Simmons is a loyalist and will no doubt weigh what his departure would mean to the young Grantland staffers he hired. But there is this: He’d love to see what he can do outside of ESPN management’s arm.

The Glenn Beck model (4-1): Beck, the former Fox News commentator, established his own online (and largely subscription-based) media network. If Simmons followed suit, a host of Grantland staffers would almost certainly join him. This model (including his own YouTube Channel and podcast network) would give Simmons the creative freedom he craves as well as the finances (fronted by a company or wealthy individuals) for independence.

Bleacher Report (5-1): A growing sports media player given the company’s heavy cash flow and its high number of unique visitors per month, B/R has access to NBA content (thought to be a must for Simmons) via Turner Sports. Imagine Simmons with a role on TNT’s Inside The NBA.

Vox Media: (7-1): Flush with money, they’ve already built a news site around former Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein.

Yahoo Sports: (9-1): Yahoo is a major digital player with an established sports presence. Pairing Simmons and Adrian Wojnarowski would be a powerful NBA duo.

Vice Media (11-1): The company has a desire to build its own television network and movie studio and has a ton of capital. But is Simmons too conservative for its taste, and Vice too insurgent for Simmons?

Old-school media conglomerates (12-1): Could CBS, FOX, NBC or Time Inc., which owns Sports Illustrated, step up? Some will likely make offers, and I imagine some have already contacted Simmons or his reps.

WWE Network (25-1): Simmons is a huge wrestling fan and there’s extra money lying around now that CM Punk is gone.

Deadspin (60-1): Could Simmons shock the world and sign with the perpetual gadfly in ESPN’s soup? Unlikely, given Deadspin has smacked Simmons around plenty over the years. But if he did, it would be akin to this.

2. I’d urge you to watch the opener for Saturday’s Army-Navy game. Spectacular work by CBS producers Pete Radovich and Gareth Hughes.

2a. The first New Year’s Six bowl game will also mark another first: the debut of Tim Tebow as a college football game analyst.

2b. The SEC on CBS was the highest-rated regular season college football package on any network for the sixth consecutive season, averaging a national household rating of 4.0. CBS said it aired five of the top 10 most-watched college football games of the 2014 regular season, including:

No. 3: Alabama-Missouri (12.8 million viewers, Dec. 6)
No. 4: Alabama-Mississippi State (10.3M, Nov. 15)
No. 6: Alabama-LSU (9.2M, Nov. 8)
No. 9: Alabama-Florida (8.0M, Sept. 20)
No. 10: Texas A&M-Auburn (7.2M, Nov. 8)

2b. Here are the 10 highest-rated TV markets in 2014 for CBS’s coverage of the SEC:

1. Birmingham
2. Memphis
3. New Orleans
4. Knoxville
5. Atlanta
6. Jacksonville
7. Nashville
8. Greenville-Spartanburg
9. Dayton
10. Charlotte

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2c. ESPN said it combined to air 494 regular season Division I football games in 2014, and the 272 FBS games on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPNEWS averaged 1.767 million viewers (this does not include the final audience for ABC’s Dec. 6 noon broadcast).

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2d. ESPN said Saturday Night Football on ABC was the most-viewed and highest-rated weekly college football night game on television. The 34 game windows on ABC averaged 5.106 million viewers, up from 4.778 million last year. In addition to the weekly ABC telecast, ESPN said its ESPN Saturday night games averaged 4.397 million viewers for a 24 percent increase (vs. 3.557 million) over 2013.

2e. The Iron Bowl (carried by ESPN) was the college football regular season’s most-viewed game. ESPN’s telecast averaged 13.529 million viewers and a 7.4 rating, making it the network’s most-viewed regular season college football game on record (since 1990). The game also drew 475,000 unique viewers and an average minute audience of 119,000 people on WatchESPN, records for regular season action.

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2f. Birmingham was ESPN’s top college football market for a 14th consecutive season, averaging a 9.2 rating for ESPN’s 74 telecasts in that market. Here are the top 25 TV markets (based on ratings, not total viewers) for ESPN’s CFB coverage in 2014:

No. 1: Birmingham
No. 2: New Orleans
No. 3: Knoxville, Greenville
No. 5: Memphis, Atlanta
No. 7: Jacksonville
No. 8: Oklahoma City
No. 9: Tulsa
No. 10: Nashville, Columbus
No. 12: Louisville 
No. 13: Richmond, Salt Lake City
No. 15: Charlotte, Austin
No. 17: Portland, Orlando, Las Vegas, West Palm Beach
No. 21: Norfolk, Dayton, Greensboro
No. 24: Raleigh-Durham
No. 25: Tampa-St. Petersburg, Phoenix

2g. This Tim Brando-Paul Finebaum dust-up is all kinds of fun.

3. We’ve seen plenty of inconsistency from sports outlets when it comes to disciplining staffers for social media missteps. On this note, I was curious how some of the sports networks I regularly deal with viewed staffers who curse on Twitter (personally, I have no bleeping issues with it), especially from front-facing talent. The answers are from spokespersons for each network:

CBS Sports: "We expect all of our employees to handle themselves in a professional manner whether they are on the air or using social media."

ESPN: "We don’t have a specific policy on it but our social media policy language says if you wouldn’t write it on or say it on air, don’t tweet it …. It’s left to common sense."

FOX Sports: Declined to comment.

NBC Sports: "Our social media guidelines remind employees that the platform is a public forum and that all communications should use proper decorum."

NFL Network: "While we don’t have a policy that specifically addresses cursing, NFL Network expects its talent and employees to present themselves in a professional manner on social networks and thus highly discourages use of foul or inappropriate language when posting."

3a. ESPN employs a terrific group of talent bookers and one of its best is Josh Drew, who books guests for ESPN Radio. Here’s how Drew landed Barack Obama for Colin Cowherd’s radio show.

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3b. Interesting report by FOX Sports NFL Insider Jay Glazer on Sunday on a potential rule change in the NFL. Reported Glazer: "Goal posts have been the same width since 1920. That could now change. At next month’s Pro Bowl, they are actually going to try to move the goal posts from 18.5 feet to 14 feet. They are going to try and make things more exciting for fourth down. If it happens, in the long term it’s groundbreaking."

3b. Terrific work by ESPN producer Tory Zawacki and SportsCenter anchor Jade McCarthy with this feature examining Eagles head coach Chip Kelly and his days as an offensive innovator at the University of New Hampshire.

3c. CBS’ The NFL Todayhad an interesting discussion (though pro-Goodell) on the NFL’s new conduct policies.

4.Sports pieces of note:

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• Two must-watch tributes to Jean Beliveau. First, the official one held by the Montreal Canadiens. Then, this great tribute from Tim Thompson, the maestro behind the CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada intros.  

•​ Here's SI’s Tom Verducci's terrific Sportsman of the Year profile of Madison Bumgarner.   

•​ Nice work by Washington Post columnist Dan Steinberg on Colin Cowherd’s continued refusal to own his misguided take on Wizards guard John Wall.

•​ Grantland’s Jordan Conn spent eight months with Tommy Gaines, a homeless, crack-addicted former basketball star.

• Highly recommended: Here's Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw on her players wearing I CAN'T BREATHE shirts.

•​ SI’s Greg Bishop on Tom Brady's plans to play into his 40s.

Non-sports pieces:

•​ This 1990 Frank Sinatra letter to the Los Angeles Times is so, so good.

•​ Ambiguity and college sexual assault: This first-person essay by Susan Dominus is worth your time.

•​ What to Do With a House Linked to a Killer, from The New York Times.

•​ The Untold Story of the Doodler Murders, by Elon Green of The Awl.

•​ New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza provided an inside look on the collapse of The New Republic.

•​ Via Grantland: An Oral History of Boogie Nights.

• The first six paragraphs of this Jeffrey Gettleman piece on an Ebola orphan will crush you.​

5. The Oprah Winfrey Network will air a 90-minute documentary on Michael Sam on Dec. 27 at 9 pm. ET. Following the documentary special, Winfrey will speak with Sam for a special episode of Oprah Prime, beginning at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT.

5a. Rob McGlarry has been named president of MLB Network. He succeeds Tony Petitti after Petitti was appointed as Chief Operating Officer of Major League Baseball.

5b. Athletes and social activism: The night #ICantBreathe came to the NBA.

5c. This week espnW will honor 25 people who made the greatest impact for women in sports this past year with the inaugural Impact 25.

5d. On Wednesday, Fox Sports Live (11 p.m. ET) will air an interview with CM Punk (nee Phil Brooks), who recently signed a contract to become a fighter in the UFC.

5e.Here’s a cool five-minute clip from MLB Network showing MLB executive Joe Torre calling a select group of umpires to let them know they were working the 2014 World Series.

5f. ESPN’s use of the phrase "Media Reports" as opposed to naming the specific outlet or reporter who first reported a story continues to embarrass the company publicly. Glazer, as he has often done, called the network out on Twitter last week after FOX Sports reported Johnny Manziel was starting on Sunday for the Browns.

Yes, such attribution battles are mostly a concern for those of us who work in sports media, but there are larger principles in play here: fairness and accuracy. ESPN reporters would (and should) expect outlets to specifically name them (or ESPN as an entity) when they break a story, as they often do. And worth noting is nearly every ESPN reporter offers fair attribution on his/her individual social media feeds. Corporately, the "Media Reports" policy reeks of egocentrism and gigantism, and ESPN has too many smart people working there for such nonsense to continue for the long term.