Lynette Rice
July 12, 2013 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Walking Dead is in hibernation until the fall, but the zombies have left behind a massive hole for cable series to fill this summer. Never before has an ad-supported cable drama set the ratings bar so high for the competition. With viewer averages exceeding 12 million, AMC’s drama remains the only series to crack the top 50 most-watched basic-cable programs of all time. (The rest are all pro and college football games.) ”What it says is that there is an opportunity to reach those big numbers,” says A&E Networks chairman Abbe Raven. ”Big shows putting pressure on people — that’s a good thing. We want more home runs.”

Some series have managed solid singles at least: TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles returned for season 4 on June 25 and averaged 6.6 million viewers. The season 8 premiere of Showtime’s Dexter pulled in a strong 2.5 million, and even season 2 of MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show posted new highs in viewers ages 12-34. Still, it all pales in comparison with the undead, which is why some try to remain realistic. ”The Walking Dead is a deftly executed show, but also was a very popular graphic novel that already had a built-in following,” says Kevin Falls, exec producer of TNT’s Franklin & Bash, which is averaging a respectable 4.3 million. ”No regular show is going to break out like that.” Others, like exec producer Paris Barclay of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, which returns in September, prefer to take the quality-over-quantity route. ”We are aspiring to do something different. We are doing a deep family show. The Walking Dead, with its scares, is more about the genre. It’s simpler. We are making a denser stew.”

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