Can AMC’s The Walking Dead survive without Rick Grimes? The ratings aren’t encouraging, to say the least.
It’s very common for any hit TV show to shed viewers over the years, especially if that show is serialized. For procedurals – like your NCISes and SVUs – it’s a little easier to weather the storm of time and hold steady. The cases and crimes are the true draw, and the inertia can be comforting if you’re looking for something to only half-pay attention to.
But shows that specialize in intense serialization – and not those serialized-procedural types, like The X-Files and Supernatural – tend to peak in the middle and wane toward the end. Certainly, there are exceptions. There are fully serialized shows that actually grow and grow, going out with a bang and getting their best ratings ever during their endgame, like Breaking Bad and (assumedly) Game of Thrones. But those stories were always building towards an ending. Walter White had to come crashing down. Someone has to win this “game” of thrones.
The Walking Dead, which has already, in its ninth season, gone on longer than those two aforementioned shows, has no end in sight, with AMC announcing the series has plans for 10 more years of content. Its sole purpose, it would seem, is to grow old with all of us. It’s not about solving a crisis or curing an outbreak. It’s about day-to-day struggles and survival… forever. The series is always going to have a loyal fan base because some people love the characters, while others will stick with it because, hell, they’ve already put in the time, but it could also literally end at any point, because it’s simply about the world being a zombie nightmare wasteland that cannot be fixed.
It’s no secret that The Walking Dead has taken a serious nosedive in the ratings department. Season 9’s opener drew the lowest premiere ratings since Season 1, down almost half the viewers from Season 8’s premiere. Since then, Season 9 viewership has continued to plummet, as fewer and fewer fans (of which there are less overall) are making the decision to watch The Walking Dead live (impacting the show’s Live+Same Day numbers), while viewers in the 18-49 demographic valued by advertisers are also dwindling.
No one’s sending up warning flares just yet. The show still adds a significant number of viewers when Live+3 and Live+7 numbers are counted and, when grading on a curve, it’s still a hit show by today’s fragmented viewing standards, and AMC’s top scripted performer by a wide margin. It’s just nowhere near the juggernaut it was back in Seasons 5 and 6. Are these low ratings indicative of what any show might face in its ninth season, or have there been specific storyline choices that severely affected viewership? Let’s take a look.
The series was riding high in Season 5. The premiere brought in, overall, something close to 17 million viewers and an 8.9 in the key 18-49 demo (with 22 million once DVR viewership was factored in). Rick and his crew escaped Terminus, dispatched the cannibals, and discovered Alexandria. The show did displease viewers by killing Beth in the midseason finale (it’s hard to accurately get a sense of how many might’ve quit watching in protest, given that midseason premieres always get a bit of a ratings boost when the show returns, but subsequent episodes of Season 5 were down a smidge), but by the time the Season 5 finale rolled around, it had bounced back to almost 16 million (21 million with DVR).
The Season 6 premiere was down a bit (around 15 million), but it still had a nice 20 million haul once Live+3 was accounted for. Fans wanted to see how Rick and the rest would handle their time in Alexandria. Rick had a new quasi-love interest, and new communities – like Hilltop and the Kingdom – were going to be introduced. Season 6’s finale was down from Season 5’s, but it was still solid (just over 14 million live, and 19 million with DVR). This was Negan’s big introduction, though it was mostly a tease, leaving viewers waiting six months to see who met the business end of Lucille.
Then came Season 7’s premiere. Hoo boy… It was quite the misery parade. “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” featured the violent death of not one, but two main characters – one of whom, Glenn, had been a fan favorite since Season 1. Still, it drew 17 million live viewers (and almost 22 million counting DVR viewers), some of them probably curious to see who Negan knocked off. But then the second episode of Season 7 shed more than 4 million viewers (a “bigger-than-usual” 27 percent drop) from the premiere. Maybe it was because casual watchers intrigued by the Season 6 cliffhanger had gotten their answers, but the dip could just as easily have been attributed to a protest drop in viewership because two beloved characters bit the dust, or because the premiere was intensely unsettling, featuring an off-putting sense of cruelty.
Yes, the episode adapted specific things straight from the comics series, which itself is a wicked and morbid saga of nasty things happening to mostly good people. And Glenn’s death shocked comic readers too, when it happened. As did Lori’s death (though it was even worse, in some regards, in the comic). But unlike Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding, or any of the other countless cruel moments that HBO’s series took directly from the source material, this moment was simply too much for some.
The Walking Dead, as a phenomenon, skyrocketed because it brought in members of a broader TV audience who didn’t consider themselves horror fans. It appealed to people who don’t regularly like scary things. To its credit, it created characters that fans of serialized TV in general were able to latch onto, if they were able to condition themselves to handle the gore. Despite its abject bleakness, people were watching Walking Dead together as families. Like, “gather the kids up, it’s Walking Dead time.” (Of course, this also speaks to how, as a nation, we’re much more prone to wave off excessive violence than anything sexual in nature. Families sure wouldn’t gather around the hearth if Walking Dead were a non-stop bone fest.)
“The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” directed by series producer Greg Nicotero, was a bridge too far for many. As hyped up as Negan was, and as much as comic fans relished the idea of this iconic baddie finally joining the show, the Dead fans who weren’t naturally horror fans apparently did not like the way this episode made them feel. The premiere’s ratings were pretty damn big, but the drop going into episode 2, “The Well,” was really significant. People demonstrably stopped watching, and they seemingly didn’t come back.
Following this, the ratings began to slowly decline throughout Season 7 (except for a little bump caused by the midseason premiere). Season 7 was, itself, a long trudge featuring the show’s heroes as depressed and despondent pawns of Negan, who kept on punishing them for their disobedience. Fans wanted revenge, for sure, but they didn’t want it to take this long. The Season 7 finale ticked up (to just over 11 million viewers in Live+SD, and 16 million with DVR viewership), but many fans were left frustrated that Negan wasn’t defeated, since the show had yet to adapt the “All Out War” arc from the comic.
More than any other event since the drop off after the Season 7 finale, Season 8’s creative choice/blunder to extend the “All Out War” arc over an entire 16-episode season left viewers in the lurch. The premiere bowed with around 11 million Live+SD viewers and 16 million in DVR, in line with the Season 7 finale, but shed another two million viewers in both measures by the time episode 802 aired. With each episode bleeding and blending into the next, almost in real time, and too much story given to drags like Eugene, Dwight, and others within the Saviors’ Sanctuary, it all felt like a stalling tactic – like the show was choosing to kick the can down the road again instead of heading toward any type of meaningful resolution.
Once people figured out that Rick and Negan weren’t going to clash, for real, until the finale, two-thirds of the year away, many started abandoning ship. Ratings took another hit after the show chose to kill Carl in the midseason premiere – a move that came as a shock to fans of the series and the comics, where Rick’s son is still alive and well. (His final episode, “Honor,” drew 8.2 million viewers live, while the week after – and every subsequent week leading up to the finale – dropped below 7 million.) The lowest ratings posted came in “Still Gotta Mean Something,” where Rick and Morgan chased down straggling Saviors and Negan was held prisoner by trash lady Jadis. (The episode drew around 6 million live viewers and 10 million when counting DVR viewership.)
When the Season 8 finale rolled around, the viewership was half that of the series’ best back in 2015, in Season 5. It was also the show’s lowest-rated season finale since Season 1 (8 million Live+SD viewers, and only 11 million when factoring in DVR watching). Fatigue had set in. Instead of being an invigorating force, Negan, despite Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s charisma, had slowly chopped away the ratings with his trusty bat.
Now we’ve caught up to Season 9. With Rick sparing Negan’s life, and Andrew Lincoln announcing his exit from the show, some fans just haven’t come back. When your series doesn’t give you any idea of how it might end, when there’s no imaginable closure at all, people will create their own stopping points. Whether it’s the death of Glenn or Rick winning the war against Negan, some fans will see these elements as clear “jumping off” moments.
Again, this is also part of the natural aging process for most TV shows, but it’s telling that three years ago, legions of fans seemed more than content to watch a show that had nothing built into it as a natural end. Everyone was like “Yeah, I’m totally cool just watching these characters wander around forever as they find, at best, temporary shelter from the zombie hellscape.” Since Negan became a series regular character and the show shifted discernibly away from at least a glimmer of optimism, the show has shed more than 11 million viewers, even counting DVR viewership over 7 days – that’s a measurable impact.
Now, between viewer frustration and growing competition from streaming services, The Walking Dead is taking a major hit. It’s an old series, the story’s not headed toward anything discernible, and it’s about to lose its central character. We fully expect ratings to get a boost from Rick’s final episode, now revealed to be episode 5 of Season 9 – but after that, are we heading for an even bigger drop? Judging by past evidence, it seems likely. If anything kept fans invested in this world for so long, it was the hope of Rick, Carl, and baby Judith (and anyone they might also care about), finding peace by building a better world together. While the show might be content to amble on aimlessly forever, that particular hope is well and truly dead.