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AMC Doesn’t Want to Choose Between Ratings and Reviews

‘Fear the Walking Dead’ and ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ are strikingly different

AMC/Ringer illustration
AMC/Ringer illustration

We are now in the true dog days of summer TV. The rest of the broadcast networks rolled over and played dead while NBC ran roughshod(-ish) with the Olympics. Netflix has capitalized on the calm before the fall TV storm with a one-two punch of nostalgia — ’80s (Stranger Things), then ’70s (The Get Down). The Night Of is in its final stretch. And into these deathly still waters, AMC has dropped the perfect time capsule of cable TV in 2016.

Sunday night saw the return of two radically different shows, thrown together by an unusual act of experimentation. Fear the Walking Dead and Halt and Catch Fire occupy perfectly opposite roles in their network’s portfolio, so much so that pairing them feels as strangely right as it does counterintuitive. Both series are on their third batch of episodes; Halt just kicked off its third season proper, while Fear broke its 15-episode second season in half, going on hiatus in late May. The series aired back-to-back premieres on Sunday night. (Or rather, back-to-back with a Chris Hardwick–shaped buffer in between.) That’s where the similarities end. The differences start with the fact that only one of those premieres was announced ahead of time.

On Friday evening, TV critic Alan Sepinwall broke the news/rumor that rather than hold Halt’s return for its regular Tuesday slot, the ’80s computer drama would instead debut in the second half of a supersized time slot cleared for Talking Dead, Fear’s Hardwick-hosted aftershow. (It’ll reair on Tuesday along with a second episode, ensuring that the original date won’t simply be a rerun.) Even in a post-Beyoncé world — hell, even in the same weekend as the most maddening, drawn-out, not-really “surprise” release in history — this particular drop stands out.

Keep in mind: Television shows are not albums. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it’s the lifeblood of TV; streaming and DVRs aside, ad-based TV networks (i.e., almost all of them) still rely on as many people as possible tuning into a given show in order to make money. And to do that, audiences need to know when a show is happening. This is how you end up with branded programming blocks like Must See TV or #TGIT, and why you’ve had some variant of “Thursdays at 9/8 Central” stuck in your head since childhood. This is also why the other show that “leaked” its premiere this summer passed it off as part of the antiestablishment anarchism of its main characters. Going off schedule is not, by and large, an establishment thing.

But Halt is a very special case, because Halt is a very specific kind of show. It’s a niche proposition — a show about a team of 1980s computer programmers — and, more to the point, it’s a post–Golden Age prestige drama swimming in a sea of prestige dramas. The show’s volume of competitors both virtually guarantees low ratings and allows Halt to carve out its own space despite them. Because unlike the actual Golden Age, when something like The Sopranos could actually claim to be the good show on TV, newer series can only claim to be a good show on TV. Which is good for TV and the people who watch it, if not for creators hoping to break through the noise. And Halt can pull that off, because it’s piggybacking off another, very specific kind of show: the contemporary juggernaut that’s managed, against all odds, to become something close to monoculture — and that networks consequently milk for all its worth. Think of it as the prime-time cable version of CBS attempting to jump-start Stephen Colbert’s Late Show by queuing it up after the Super Bowl.

Fear the Walking Dead is, of course, a spin-off of — specifically, a prequel to — The Walking Dead, a show whose longevity and unstoppable rise to ratings dominance make it uncannily similar to the zombies dead set on devouring its heroes. Like another premium-cable genre show, it’s consistently drawn eye-popping numbers into the tens of millions, and while it’s lagged a bit in its sixth season, The Walking Dead is, like Katie Ledecky, racing against itself: It still finished out as the top show on television (not cable, television) among adults 18–49.

A precious commodity like that can’t just stand on its own. So AMC launched Talking Dead, thereby kick-starting a talk-show-for-the-recap-age format with several Ringer enthusiasts — and then Fear. Spin-offs aren’t exactly gone from TV these days, but for every Chicago Med — or even Lip Sync Battle — there’s an abortive attempt like Ravenswood. At least initially, though, Fear the Walking Dead delivered on its promise: take the fan base Robert Kirkman and Co. had improbably cultivated and give them more of what they want, thereby keeping them at AMC year-round. (Fear only airs when the mothership is on hiatus, and vice versa.) The numbers may have declined, from 10 million at Fear’s outset to less than 5 million at its low point, but the philosophy remains the same. It’s fan service as a talisman against the corrosive forces of Peak TV. Happy audiences are loyal audiences are don’t-pick-up-the-remote-and-see-what-low-key-romantic-comedy-just-got-uploaded-to-Netflix audiences.

Yet Halt, too, is its own kind of fan service. What was initially received as a lackluster Difficult Man riff, and not even AMC’s first, now suffers from The Leftovers Problem: It’s a show that improved in its second season by radically restructuring itself — but may have remodeled too late to reach an audience wider than the critics now enthusiastically singing its praises. The only time Halt ever topped a million viewers was its series premiere, and, since then, the needle has slowly dropped below a cancellation-fear-inducing half million. At this point, Halt’s only hope for a ratings hike lies in a potential, albeit notoriously fickle, Netflix bump. (It’s worked for the network before!) And yet AMC renewed Halt for a third season, anyway.

Lack of ad dollars aside, it still makes a certain kind of business sense to keep the show on the air. Halt is playing to a small, yet loyal audience — sort of like the would-be tech moguls on the show itself, who run a gaming-turned-chat company with a tiny but deeply passionate user base. And it’s also why it makes perfect sense to drop Halt after Talking Dead. Halt already has a tiny viewership, so queuing it up after a show with 10 times its audience can only help; besides, Halt’s once again semi-rebooted by shipping its entire cast from Texas to San Francisco, providing a relatively easy entrance point for new viewers.

Then there’s the perfect symmetry of placing these shows next to each other: one a popular hit, if not a critical one; the other a critical hit, if not a popular one. They’re the two extremes of Peak TV, and two complementary ways for a network to stay afloat.