Chaos Theory

You might think by now that the whole “zombie” craze is exhausted on TV, that fickle younger adults have moved on from apocalyptic stories involving the flesh-eating undead.

But you would be wrong. The demographic that’s powering the ratings muscle of AMC’s The Walking Dead is squarely in the millennial camp. The show is the most watched by the 18-to-34-yearold demographic, a group that’s drawn to darker sides of the drama genre. These shows are often set in bleak, futuristic worlds and depict ambivalent heroes.

“These millennials have come of age in absolute chaos, so it’s natural that the programming they are attracted to has an even edgier edge than we’re used to seeing,” Jane Gould, senior vice president of research for MTV, said. “The lines that used to be so firmly cemented so as to not cross have been easily crossed now, because as humans we like to escape and think our lives are better than the one that we’re watching, and that’s easy to imagine when you’re watching The Walking Dead.”

Indeed, the post-apocalyptic zombie series and its companion talk show Talking Dead, as well as HBO’s fantasy-driven series Game of Thrones and FX’s horror anthology series American Horror Story, all ranked among the top five most watched cable shows for millennials in 2014 averaging a combined 15 rating according to Ratings Intelligence. (ESPN’s Monday Night Football rounds out the list.)

The closest non-scripted drama series among millennials is VH1’s Love and Hip Hop Atlanta, with just under a 2.5 rating.

Millennials — living today under the constant threat of terrorism, a stagnant economy, high unemployment and crippling student-loan debt — are not as optimistic about the state of the workd as baby boomers were when they moved into adult, Kent Rees, general manager of millennial-targeted network Pivot, said.

“Millennials are more realistic — they look around the world and see that the world is screwed up,” said Rees. This past January, Pivot debuted Fortitude, a dark drama with climate change overtones in which a small Arctic town is rocked by a grisly murder.

The darker shows of today are a drastic change from the dramas of 20 years ago. Such shows as The West Wing, Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue were considered edgy, but look tame by today’s standards.


Back then, boomers saw the world as their oyster and everything was about optimism, happy endings comfort, certainty, and law, order and justice, according to Don Micallef, vice president of research for Discovery Communications, which recently commissioned “The Dark Side,” a report on the viewer appeal of dark dramas. On the other hand, today’s millennials see the world as a dangerous place, filled with uncertainty, consequences, betrayal and fear, Micallef said.

“Certainly, when you look at the history of millennials and what they were exposed to early in their lifetime, starting with the dotcom bubble bursting through 9/11, the world has really turned upside down,” he said. “So, they are used to seeing the world in a much darker perspective than the boomers or the [Generation Xers] did.”

And today’s darker-themed shows are influencing the development of programs aimed at baby boomers, Micallef added. Shows such as NBC’s The Blacklist and ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder are successfully reaching older audiences with intense plot twists, murder and mayhem.

“Five years ago, the networks wouldn’t have tried shows like that for their broader audience because they would have come across as too dark,” he said. “But now — in order to compete with what’s on cable, which offers much darker content — the broadcast networks have had to adapt.”

But it’s not all about the doom and gloom. Pivot’s Rees said shows that feature chaos but also provide a sliver of hope for the future and depict characters who are willing to pull together for the greater good have big appeal to millennials.

Fortitude’s climate change theme is supported by a show-related website that provides information and recommendations to counter the phenomenon. Rees said the series and its companion website give millennials a more informative view of the subject.

“[The website] highlights the real science behind the show, and I think we’re making that extra commitment and layer to the show,” he said. “[Viewers] can be involved in the vibe of the show and get involved in the mystery and story and then go online and engage deeper.”

MTV’s Gould pointed to recent network research on the TV viewing habits of millennials that revealed the group is driven by complicated storylines in which millennials work together to create a better world for themselves and build unique, non-traditional family bonds, similar to the relationship between the human survivors in The Walking Dead and the bond between friends within MTV’s horror-themed series Teen Wolf, the network’s most-watched scripted drama series among millennials.

Millennials also want programming that doesn’t adhere to traditional stereotypes or follow a formula, but rather shows that have fluid boundaries. “What we see from millennials in this lean-in TV world is a desire for chaos, but then for people to work together against that something that is threatening them,” Gould added.

The tie between scripted dramas and social media is also strong for millennials, and more often than not, millennials are talking about these shows on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, which follows four teen girls tormented by a mysterious murderer known as “A,” has generated the top five most tweeted telecasts in television history over its five seasons, according to Karey Burke, executive vice president of programming and development.

The show is currently the most-followed scripted television series on Instagram, generating close to 2 million fans per episode, according to ABC Family.


“Social media has become the modern water cooler, and these shows in particular have these very big stakes and surprises,” Burke said. “I think they love the suspension of disbelief, and they can’t predict what’s going to happen. Being on those virtual rollercoaster rides for them is thrilling.”

Dave Quinn, editor-in-chief for website Beamly, which bills itself as a social discovery platform for TV, said the networks have done a good job of using social media to attract millennials who want to discuss the latest murder or the unexpected plot twists by creating hashtags within the show to drive online discussions.

“People like pulling apart all of the conflict and mystery involved in those shows,” he said.

Millennial-targeted networks will look to continue its walk on the dark side with its viewers. MTV is creating a TV version of the hit theatrical horror franchise Scream and is developing the miniseries Shannara, based on Terry Brooks’ fantasy-themed novels of the same name that chronicle a land of magic nearly 2000 years after Earth’s demon-induced demise.

ABC Family is developing a procedural drama called Stitchers, set to air this summer, in which a woman hacks into the minds of dead bodies to help solve murders.

Pivot is also looking at a number of drama series to potentially add to its lineup, while upstart El Rey Network has begun production on a second season of its horror series From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.

Discovery’s Micallef said he expects TV will see even darker dramas in the future as millennials continue to look to entertainment for an escape from reality.

“We haven’t seen a pushback yet from audiences so I think it can get even darker,” he said. “I think we’ll see more of it, rather than less of it.”

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.