The Walking Dead season 4 is here, and judging from comments in our season 4 premiere review, people are liking it (though still nitpicking it to death – out of love, you know?). But while debate about a show’s quality is always a quagmire of subjective opinion, numbers – specifically the ones related to Nielsen ratings – are about as objective a measure of a TV show as you’re likely to find. And on that front, Walking Dead is truly killing it.

EW reports that AMC’s horror/drama snagged a record 16.1 million viewers for its season 4 premiere – including a 30% increase over the season 3 finale in the coveted 18-49 adult demographic. Not only does that make Walking Dead the top dog on cable (a title it’s long since held), it makes it top dog of Sunday night scripted TV overall – including broadcast network heavyweights – and the most popular airing in that 18-49 demo for the entire fall 2013 TV season.

Look, we recently asked the question of whether or not AMC is in a troubled place. ‘The little network that could’ sprang out of obscurity in the late 2000s, bringing us gems like Mad Men and Breaking Bad – and eventually the game-changer that is Walking Dead; but since that golden era, the second and third waves of shows (like Rubicon, The Killing, Hell on Wheels or Low Winter Sun) have failed to find the same foothold. The network’s brand as the place “where stories are told,” is arguably fading, while profits are being vacuumed up in disproportionate amounts by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

That is why the network isn’t thinking about great variety so much as expanding established brands, right now. Breaking Bad is gone (bowing out at the moment when it finally became a major cultural fixation, ironically enough), but AMC is going to try to recoup that loss with a spinoff series, Better Call SaulThe Walking Dead may be at the top of its game right now (ratings-wise), but the network is already thinking of milking more teats on that cash cow as well, by expanding TWD into a whole universe, starting with a secondary TV series populated with all new characters and a separate storyline.

Meanwhile, the main Walking Dead series continues to be ratings juggernaut – despite a new showrunner at the helm – and is casting a wide shadow of doubt on Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter’s previous claim that the show couldn’t last more than season 4 or 5 under AMC’s guidance. As the video up above says, season 4 could be one that takes fans (and newcomers) by storm with some “huge” developments. The season 4 trailer seemed to suggest as much…

With ratings like these, it’s doubtful the network is going to be treating this show with anything but well-padded care gloves. After all, their biggest bragging right may soon be their only one.

The Walking Dead is currently airing season 4 Sundays @ 9pm on AMC.

Source: EW & The Wrap