First things first: “The Walking Dead” still draws the biggest young audiences on TV (outside of sports) by an almost obscenely wide margin. The midseason finale on Sunday pulled in 10.58 million viewers on the night, and 6.53 million of them were in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic.
However, that demo audience was down 27% from last year’s midseason finale, and down nearly 40% from the season premiere, an in-season drop far steeper than that of any other. The first six episodes of Season 7 pulled in an average of 11.05 million viewers in the 18-49 demo, when viewing within seven days of air is counted; 7.62 million of them watched the day it aired.
The Season 7 premiere was actually up a tick from the Season 6 premiere, when all was said and done; the slide began with episode 2. The demo ratings for Season 7’s episodes have fallen precipitously from their Season 6 counterparts in Nielsen’s Live+3 numbers, to the tune of 20% for episodes 6 and 7. There’s no denying “The Walking Dead” is in a decline.
Of course, most networks would sacrifice several executives’ limbs to have anything approaching that number of ratings points to offer advertisers from a single program: One episode of “The Walking Dead” is worth more than an entire night on some broadcast nets.
The problem lies in “TWD’s” C3 ratings — the numbers that serve as the industry’s currency, as they measure how many people were watching a program’s commercials within three days. In general, the C3 ratings for most shows aren’t much more than a couple tenths of a ratings point bigger than the ratings for viewing done the night of air, though there are some exceptions. But “The Walking Dead” actually loses viewers in C3 ratings, compared to the live-plus-same-day numbers.
Take the Nov. 27 episode: The 18-49 audience that night was 6.29 million. After three days of viewing was counted, the number of 18-49ers who watched the episode grew to 8.88 million. But the average 18-49 audience who watched the commercials dipped to 5.93 million. That was also a 23% ratings drop in audience from the same episode in Season 6. (C3 data comes out a few weeks after each episode has aired, so numbers for the last couple episodes are still being processed.) Season 6’s C3 ratings were themselves down from Season 5’s by about 8% on the whole.
AMC owns “The Walking Dead,” which means advertising isn’t the only way the show brings in money. But AMC is underdelivering on its guarantees to advertisers, ad-side sources say, after hiking the cost of a commercial by double-digit percentages. Worse, one analysis by analyst firm MoffettNathanson indicates a decline of 30% in the C3 ratings at the network for the fourth quarter, meaning fewer ratings points available to sell and to use to make up for any shortfall. AMC Networks derived 44% of its revenue in 2015 from advertising.
AMC and its parent company, AMC Networks, aren’t exactly sitting idle in the face of ratings declines. They’re investing heavily in streaming services, and taking a much more aggressive stance when it comes to owning their programming and licensing it out to outlets like Netflix and Hulu. And “The Walking Dead” is, like many other young-skewing series, seeing an increase in digital consumption. It’s also hardly unheard-of for a show in its seventh season to experience some ratings erosion.
Yet the “Walking Dead” ratings trajectory brings to mind a character on another flagship AMC drama who famously said, “Not great, Bob.”