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'Walking Dead' a megahit, thanks in part to white-knuckled binge-watchers

Apocalyptic zombie thriller 'The Walking Dead' is a modern TV juggernaut. The hit show from AMC has shattered cable ratings, spawned a spin-off — 'Fear the Walking Dead' — and even inspired a new format in cable: the live post-show commentary 'Talking Dead,' hosted by Chris Hardwick.

What sparked the phenomenon? Executive producer Gale Anne Hurd recently sat down with BINGE to offer some insight into why this serialized horror show draws such mass appeal.

According to Hurd, it was no accident; America seems to love the creepy and ghoulish: "AMC was looking to fill a particular niche. And it's not one that most of us were aware of at the time, which is that their most successful block of programming was not necessarily 'Mad Men' or then Breaking Bad," she said. "It was 'Fear Fest,' where they aired for the two weeks leading up to Halloween, classic horror films ... So they thought, 'If we're going to launch something, it should be in the horror genre.'"

Horror has worked for Gale Anne Hurd in the past. She co-created the Terminator franchise, which has generated nearly $2 billion in global box-office receipts, as well as the classic horror sequel 'Aliens.' 'The Walking Dead' has been the highest-rated show on television for four straight years, averaging 18.4 million viewers in Season 6, according to data from Nielsen.

Yet while there's no doubt that fans have become obsessed with zombies, Hurd also points to the advent of digital streaming and binge-watching as major drivers behind the show's success. "Building an audience for a scripted, serialized show would not have been possible without people being able to catch up through streaming. People can binge-watch, and it's changed the dynamic of the TV business."

Those dynamics have led to what analysts have called the golden age of television. For Hurd, it's always been golden. "Being a producer, television is fantastic because it's a producer's medium. Feature films — it's very much a director's medium. In television the directors cycle through. So every episode or every two episodes, the director finishes their cut and they move on to something else. And the producers are left — we're raising the baby."

"A two-hour feature [film] will take two years to make. Well, during that time, just on one series, just on, let's say, 'The Walking Dead,' I've told 32 hours of character-driven storytelling. And because of that, the film studios are at a disadvantage. They have to cram all that storytelling, all those plot twists, all the character development into two and a half hours."

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan featured in The Walking Dead on AMC
Gene Page | AMC
Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan featured in The Walking Dead on AMC

But Hurd isn't just taking cues from technology companies and the studio system; she has her own prescriptions for Silicon Valley. When it comes to artificial intelligence, she thinks we're about three decades too late. "If you'd only watched 'The Terminator' in 1984, you could have been way ahead of making these announcements in 2015. … People aren't really examining the ethics of this or the morality. They just think all progress is good."

And as for virtual reality, there is still some work to be done. "The biggest limitation for me is, I put on the VR goggles, and I get so disoriented that really within six seconds I'm ready to throw up."

As for cable television, Hurd isn't slowing down. 'The Walking Dead' has been renewed for an eighth season. She also has a new show on the USA Network, 'Falling Water' (USA is owned by CNBC parent NBCUniversal) and, for Amazon and Jeff Bezos, Hurd is developing a horror anthology series based on Aaron Mahnke's Lore podcast.

"I still believe in appointment viewing. … But it's hard not to accept the fact that people like to binge, and we have to accept that that's the way the consumer is going these days."