‘The Walking Dead’ Ratings History: An Audience Autopsy

'The Walking Dead' Ratings History: Audience Autopsy
Variety Intelligence Platform; Adobe Stock

AMC’s hit show “The Walking Dead” just aired its first midseason finale for the bumper final season — season 11 for those counting— which saw 1.9 million watch it within the same day it aired. This led to an average of 2.1 million viewers for the episodes airing in 2021, the lowest average viewership the series has seen.

AMC’s hit has long been a juggernaut on cable TV. It’s spawned a talk show, two active spinoffs with two more greenlit for future release and helped AMC remain a cable TV powerhouse in the post-“Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” era.

It has also helped anchor the first AMC Premiere, an ad-free, early-release experience for MVPD subscribers, and more recently, AMC+, which features episodes of “The Walking Dead” airing one week ahead of their linear airing.

Despite seeing viewership plummet, the series is still one of, if not the, most watched shows on cable on the night it airs. The problem is that audiences are a mere shade of what they were five or six years ago.

The average total audience for all episodes airing in 2021 is down by -84.9% (or -11.6 million) from 2015, with this erosion even greater among key advertising demos 18-49 (down by -91.9%) and 18-34 (down by -96.2%). In fairness, AMC+ will have cannibalized the live audience a little, with mega-fans subscribing to watch a week earlier. But this also doesn’t cover the huge total drop seen in viewers — it will soften the decline a little, but the trend will still hold.

These declines can’t be explained away by cord-cutting alone. Yes, people exiting the pay-TV ecosystem will impact viewership as you can’t watch if you don’t have access. But VIP+’s estimates on the number of subscribers to major MVPDs and VMVPDs shows that “The Walking Dead" audience loss outstripped pay-TV losses in 2017 and 2018.

There are other factors at play that demonstrate the struggles cable TV networks are facing. Affiliate fees — the amount of money TV networks charge pay-TV distributors — increased by $8.1 billion (+6.3%) in the last year alone, despite fewer people subscribing and fewer subscribers watching. With news that NBCU’s standoff with YouTube TV over carriage fees ended with the two agreeing to freeze rates, it suggests that the cycle of ever-increasing fees may be drawing to a close.

Streaming services shoulder some blame here. It’s more than just providing limitless alternatives. They impact viewing by instilling a lack of urgency to watch in the primetime window with the audience, as well as changing viewing behaviors to prefer all episodes of a show to be available.

Using “The Walking Dead” to anchor a premium streaming service in AMC+ is an example of what’s becoming a fairly typical play by TV networks in transferring linear content to SVOD platforms. This has the unfortunate effect of weakening the linear channel, hastening the viewer decline.

Data from VIP+’s recent “Demographic Divide” report shows this clearly. Over half of 15-29s and one in two people between 30 and 59 agreed they like when all episodes are available and they can watch at their own pace. This behavior will not stay on SVODs only. It alters how people watch their TV shows, saving them up to watch with only a supercharged rump of fans remaining to watch weekly.

This new streaming behavior is having ramifications on how important younger consumers rate cable TV. VIP+’s report found that only a small proportion of those under 45 ranked cable as one of the top three most entertaining sources available. Given the vast number of both streaming services and shows to watch, resulting in the splintering of the audience and the end of the watercooler TV show, it’s hard to see how this will change.

All of this adds up to the continued annual declines in same-day viewership of cable shows. There’s not much further for them to drop — they have to bottom out somewhere, and it won’t be zero — but it’s a sad reminder of just how far cable TV has changed in a few short years.