This Sunday, The Walking Dead returns, following up a particularly brutal first half of season 7. Yet, a lot of the talk around the mid-season premiere isn’t focused on storylines — it’s focused on ratings.
The first half of season 7 saw an 11% ratings decline in its key demographic, young adults. As a result, last fall saw story after story focusing on doom and gloom, speculating as to what went wrong. Some cited the next-level graphic violence (to be fair, Negan’s kill scene was brutal) and killing off a couple of beloved characters. Others blame the show’s meandering story (or perhaps a lack thereof).
Yet AMC doesn’t seem worried. In fact, it’s not only banking on a successful finish to season 7, but it looks to The Walking Dead to morph into a larger-than-life series that transcends decades.
“The Walking Dead could have the same longevity as Star Trek, which is still producing new shows after 50 years.” Josh Sapan, CEO of AMC Networks, Inc. told Bloomberg. “It still has a long, long creative life and a long, long commercial life.”
So, is The Walking Dead really in trouble? Or will it rebound starting this Sunday?
Who’s to say it needs to rebound? I’d argue that all the doom and gloom talk is just that — talk. Yes, ratings have slid, but let’s take a step back and look at the big picture.
- Ratings don’t yet factor in streaming. In the last year, we’ve seen an explosion in legitimate ways to watch The Walking Dead online, from Sling TV to PlayStation Vue. Not to mention, people watch after-the-fact on AMC’s website and app. We might know more about the effects streaming has on viewership soon — Nielsen plans to have its Total Audience Measurement system rolled out fully by March.
- Pirating increased this season. Legal streaming isn’t the only factor ratings fail to include. There’s also illegal downloads, something the show saw an increase in at the beginning of this season.
- Cable viewership is down across the board. NFL ratings are down this season. ESPN is losing viewers. The Olympics saw poor ratings as well. Notice a trend? The fact is that traditional cable viewership is falling, and it’s doubtful this trend will reverse. So, The Walking Dead isn’t alone.
- The Walking Dead is still crushing competition. Okay, so the show has been running for seven seasons — of course it’s going to experience some decline in ratings. However, let’s put this into perspective. The mid-season finale wrapped up with ratings about double of NBC’s hit, This is Us. The show still ranks first in the 18-49 demographic, and third overall. In other words, The Walking Dead is still king.
- AMC has other ways to monetize the show. Traditional advertising on cable isn’t the only way AMC is making money on The Walking Dead. AMC owns the show and is being aggressive with licensing and ways to stream the network. This is why you can watch seasons 1-6 on Netflix, and you can bet Netflix pays big for each episode.
So, will ratings return in the second half of season 7? Maybe. There will probably be a bump in the mid-season premiere and some drop off after. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably safe to say that the series will be okay. The real story here is the demise of the traditional pay-TV model in the face of digital consumption.