Nearly a decade after the first show premiered, the “Walking Dead” franchise is far from dead.
Expanding beyond the world of the comic book series of the same name created by Robert Kirkman, there are three shows set in the “Walking Dead” universe on the air, with the new one, “The Walking Dead: World Beyond,” set to debut Oct. 4 on AMC following the long-delayed Season 10 episode of “The Walking Dead,” which had been set as the finale until AMC decided to add more episodes to the season.
There is also the popular after-show “Talking Dead,” hosted by Chris Hardwick. Beyond that, the franchise now includes mobile games, toys and other merchandise, as well as upcoming feature films starring “Walking Dead” mainstay Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, originally supposed to start production in 2019 but still in “very active development,” per AMC Networks chief operating officer Ed Carroll.
All that said, the undead franchise’s strongest days definitely seem to be behind it.
“It’s good news and bad news,” says media consultant Brad Adgate. “The bad news is, like any show that’s been on since 2010, there’s going to be ratings erosion, some viewer fatigue, some competition creeping in to siphon off the audience. The good news is, despite all these declines, relative to a scripted entertainment show and basic cable, it’s still one of the top-rated shows.”
Early on, “The Walking Dead” proved to be a monster ratings success. During the show’s fifth season, its live-plus-same day viewership peaked with a staggering average of 14.4 million viewers per episode; 7.4 million of those fell into the coveted adults 18-49 demographic. It was ranked the top cable show in the key demo for eight of the past nine years. But linear ratings have declined across the board as streaming supplants traditional television — and “The Walking Dead” was by no means immune.
The show’s 10th season is averaging just 3.4 million viewers in live-plus-same-day, with 1.1 million in the key demo. Those figures don’t include the 16th episode of Season 10, which was originally supposed to air in April but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t think you will ever see a show that big on cable again,” Adgate says. “It was really that and ‘Game of Thrones.’ Those were the last two really big popular television series that were able to attract young adults. And now [‘Walking Dead’] is going to be on for a couple more years, but I don’t think they’re going to turn around and get 15 million viewers anytime soon. Obviously they’re doing spinoffs, but you know, spinoffs have never really done as well as the original franchise show.”
While the declines are large, linear ratings don’t mean what they once did in a post-Netflix world. To that end, AMC currently has multiple AVOD and SVOD deals for the shows. Netflix has the SVOD rights to “The Walking Dead,” while Hulu has the SVOD rights to “Fear the Walking Dead.” There are also dedicated “Walking Dead” channels on the AVOD services IMDb TV, Pluto and Dish Network/Sling. AMC has launched a Twitch channel for “Walking Dead” content, including a weekly show that will do deep dives into past episodes. AMC retains the SVOD rights to “World Beyond.”
“If you’re in the content business, you want to take the shows where the audience is,” Carroll tells Variety. “So being on the AMC channel is one central component of that, but then also using the library on platforms like Pluto and IMDb is another. You have to remember, there are always people coming of age. There are always people who were not old enough or even weren’t born [when ‘Walking Dead’ started]. And so there are always people aging into that for these kinds of landmark shows.”
In keeping with the recent strategy of other major media companies, Carroll says AMC is planning to eventually move “The Walking Dead” onto streaming services the company controls. “A few years after we stop delivering new episodes to the show’s SVOD partners, the entire series — almost 180 hours — comes back to us for use on our own platforms, be that AMC Plus or Shudder, etc.,” he says. “We see all those hours as valuable and enduring assets.”
Both “The Walking Dead” and “Fear the Walking Dead” remain large drivers of ad revenue for AMC. According to data provided by Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, “The Walking Dead” brought in approximately $69.3 million in 2019. For “Fear the Walking Dead,” the take was approximately $22.3 million.
Even with “Walking Dead” and all its spinoffs, the value of AMC is not nearly what it was during the show’s peak, Adgate says. “There was always talk that AMC was going to be sold, or someone was going to buy it because it’s not part of a big media conglomerate. But I think the value of the network is not anywhere near as great as it was, say, five or 10 years ago.”
Yet the franchise extends beyond the TV screen nowadays and onto mobile devices. According to data from mobile intelligence firm Sensor Tower, the 2015 mobile game “The Walking Dead: Road to Survival” from Scopely has generated $372.3 million in lifetime revenue, and has accumulated close to 50 million downloads. Next Games’ “The Walking Dead: Our World,” a location-based augmented reality game, has accumulated $39.6 million in revenue to date, and picked up more than 9 million downloads since launching in 2018.
All financials aside, however, the flagship show now has an end in sight. AMC recently announced that “The Walking Dead” will finish with an expanded 24-episode Season 11, which will air over two years beginning in 2021. That’s on top of six additional episodes that will be considered part of Season 10, set to air in early 2021. The idea of ending the program has been in the works for some time and was not directly related to the pandemic.
“The show’s been running for a decade, so I’m sure there’s always been speculation about if it will end or go on forever,” “Walking Dead” showrunner Angela Kang says. “And what I’m trying to focus on is we’ve got two more years, which is not nothing. We’ve got 30 more episodes ahead of us. So we’re all deep into doing the creative of that, and then working on developing the next iteration of it.”
That next iteration is an untitled spinoff centered on the characters Daryl and Carol, played in the original series by Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride. The spinoff is co-created by Kang and the “Walking Dead” universe’s chief content officer, Scott Gimple, and is being eyed for a 2023 launch.
The network also announced development on an anthology series called “Tales of the Walking Dead” that hails from Gimple. The series will feature different characters each week and will allow Gimple to explore settings and timelines that are different from any of the other shows, while also allowing for the possibility of bringing back characters that are no longer with the franchise.
“Its mission statement is to do things that the other shows can’t do,” Gimple says. “The only reason for it to exist is to do that. We want to offer the audience a different experience every week, set in the ‘Walking Dead’ universe.”
Those experiences could include things like episodes done in the style of a dark comedy, animation, or a music-driven format. Per Carroll, “Tales” will serve as a “test kitchen” of sorts for potential future projects. That means if one episode does particularly well, it could be spun off into a stand-alone project.
So while it’s long odds that the franchise will be able to recapture its glory days, “The Walking Dead” is poised to continue in some form for several years. Sure, it’s lost a step, but like its ubiquitous zombies, it’s not going down without a fight.