Are Flesh-Eating Zombies The Future Of Television?

AMC's The Walking Dead has key ratings better than network dramas. The show gets desirable young viewers by not skimping on explicit action, gore or storytelling. So why haven't the networks tried to imitate the show? Blame the FCC, which cracks down on explicit network broadcast content but overlooks cable.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

But perhaps not the young audience that commercial networks and cable crave, for them there is "The Walking Dead."

NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says this flesh-eating zombie fest looks like the future of television.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "The Walking Dead" is the grossest show on TV we can't wait to watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOMBIE WHACKING)

DEGGANS: Fans love seeing zombies whacked in the head. But it's the great storytelling and riveting antiheroes that build this show's massive audience. And you can find that combination on other successful cable TV shows, too. There's the morally-conflicted, gun-running biker gang on FX's big hit, "Sons of Anarchy."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SONS OF ANARCHY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) I'm trying to give us a future. If that means stepping outsides the lines, then that is exactly what I am going to do.

DEGGANS: And there's the pop culture explosion which happened when "Breaking Bad" ended, concluding a masterful drama about a teacher-turned psychopathic drug lord.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "BREAKING BAD")

BRYAN CRANSTON: (as Walter White) I am not in danger, Skyler, I am the danger. A guy opens his store and gets shot, and you think that of me. No, I am the one who knocks.

DEGGANS: But search for a similar show on NBC, CBS or ABC, and they're, well, dead in the water. Which is surprising, because TV is a business where cloning big hits is practically a job requirement.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "LAW AND ORDER")

DEGGANS: NBC has aired five different versions of "Law & Order." Other networks have so many spin offs and remakes of "NCIS," "Hawaii Five-O" or "Sherlock Holmes," it can feel like broadcasters only know how to make five kinds of TV shows anyway.

NBC has tried to bite off a bit of "The Walking Dead's" success, but they wound up with a series about the world losing all its electricity, called "Revolution."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "REVOLUTION")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) It's happening, isn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) It's going to turn off and it will never turn back on.

DEGGANS: Now, losing power may sound like a nightmare to some iPhone addicted Millennials, but compared to flesh-eating zombies, not so much. "The Walking Dead" is ruthless; prominent characters can die at any moment. But on "Revolution," the biggest character who got killed was brought back to life and they explained it with a blizzard of nerd-speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "REVOLUTION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) It's the nanotech that did this, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) It's the only logical explanation I can think of.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) Right, the microscopic robots in the air magically resurrected me. That sounds totally logical.

DEGGANS: Even the guy who got saved from death thinks that storyline was lame. And "Revolution" only attracts about one-third the viewers of "The Walking Dead."

Why are the networks struggling to clone these kinds of shows? It's the force of our habits. Many of us still see network television as America's open hearth; a warm spot where we gather to share stories as one big media family. And if CBS or ABC dropped a show like "The Walking Dead" into that fantasy, advertisers would flee and parents groups would probably end up decapitating a network executive.

Broadcasters have a tough challenge: satisfying older viewers while crafting something bold and explicit for a new generation. Otherwise, the next soulless zombie to take a spike to the head just might be the networks themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "THE WALKING DEAD")

WERTHEIMER: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "THE WALKING DEAD")

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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