Heads Up: 'The Walking Dead' Crushes It in Season 7 Premiere

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'Walking Dead' to its Sunday night competion: Be very afraid.
'Walking Dead' to its Sunday night competion: Be very afraid.  Credit: Gene Page/AMC

The skull-crushing, heartbreaking season premiere of AMC's "The Walking Dead" put up staggering numbers on Sunday night, bludgeoning the competition in the network's target demo and nearly matching a record high turnout for the serialized drama.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the cliffhanger-resolving season opener scared up 17 million viewers and an 8.4 rating in AMC's dollar demo, which works out to around 10.7 million adults 18-49. And while "The Walking Dead" trailed NBC's "Sunday Night Football" in overall deliveries -- the ghastly 6-6 Seahawks-Cardinals overtime draw averaged 17.7 million viewers -- the 66-minute table-setter crushed the NFC West showdown among adults 18-49 by a margin of 3 million viewers.

"The Walking Dead" also made short work of its scripted competition, squelching the likes of ABC's faltering "Secrets and Lies" (0.7 in the 18-49 demo) and "Quantico" (0.7), CBS's "NCIS: Los Angeles" (1.7) and "Madam Secretary" (1.1) and Fox's "Family Guy" (1.2) and "The Last Man on Earth" (0.9). Premium cable shows were also no match for the dead, which obliterated the new HBO drama "Westworld" (0.7) while overwhelming Showtime mainstay "Shameless" (0.6).

Following on the heels of the premiere, the Chris Hardwick wrap-up show "Talking Dead" delivered 7.57 million viewers and a 3.7 rating. Broadcast live from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the special 90-minute edition of "Talking Dead" featured actors Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Danai Gurira and Michael Cudlitz, two of whom were on hand to bid fans a fond farewell.

For a scripted series embarking on its seventh season, "The Walking Dead" numbers were nothing short of phenomenal. Not only did the demo performance mark a 14% lift compared with the 7.4 rating scared up in the year-ago season premiere, but Sunday night's installment fell just shy of the series' all-time high-water mark. The season five premiere drew 17.3 million viewers and an 8.7 demo, making it the highest-rated episode of scripted television since the Sept. 19, 2011 broadcast of CBS's "Two and a Half Men" notched a 10.7 rating. (The Chuck Lorre comedy got a huge lift from the ignominious departure of star Charlie Sheen and the subsequent introduction of Ashton Kutcher's Walden Schmidt character.)

Sunday night's results no doubt were boosted by the six-month wait to discover which character[s] succumbed to the barb-wire-enlaced Louisville Slugger wielded by Negan, the charismatic sociopath played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Introduced in April's cliffhanger episode, Negan embodies a shake of the ontological Etch A Sketch for Rick, Michonne, Daryl and the rest of the zombie-apocalypse gang, and AMC did an extraordinary job in keeping the gory reveal under its hat all summer. The premiere's massive live turnout would appear to reflect fans' urgency to watch the bloody events unfold in real time rather than risk spoilage via social media or good old-fashioned water-cooler chatter.

Interestingly enough, nearly half of those who tuned in to Sunday night's show did not watch the spring finale. According to Samba TV analysis, only 51% of viewers who watched the season opener caught the April 3 episode, which drew 14.2 million live-same-day viewers and a 6.9 rating. Samba data also suggests that "Walking Dead" enthusiasts have cast iron stomaches, as two-thirds of them stuck around after Negan turned two characters' skulls into spaghetti Bolognese.

Among the most visible sponsors in the season premiere were Emirates, which ran its latest spot featuring spokesfriend Jennifer Aniston; Lincoln Motor Co., which upped the star power with yet another Matthew McConaughey ad; and Paramount Pictures, on hand to hype up its Amy Adams sci-fi release "Arrival" with a 60-second cutdown. Auto (Jeep, Audi, Honda), gaming (Bethesda Software, Xbox, Telltale Games) and telecom (Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon) were well-represented categories, as was QSR. While the episode's graphic content would seem to disqualify the likes of Carl's Jr., Jimmy John's and Taco Bell -- not to mention Totino's pepperoni pizza rolls -- fast-food outlets have been a steadfast backer of "The Walking Dead" since season one, and AMC is particularly vigilant about adjacencies.

If recent seasons are any indication, expect "The Walking Dead" to fall to anywhere between a 7.2 and 7.4 rating for this Sunday's episode. While episode two is facing a double-barreled onslaught by way of an Eagles-Cowboys showdown on "Sunday Night Football" and, barring an unlikely sweep, Game 5 of the World Series on Fox, the show tends to hold up extremely well against high-profile sporting events. Last season's fourth installment of "The Walking Dead" delivered 13.3 million viewers and a 6.8 in the demo opposite the fifth and deciding game of the Mets-Royals World Series and a "Sunday Night Football" broadcast that saw the Broncos defense put the whammy on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

At present, the gulf between "The Walking Dead" and TV's No. 2-rated scripted series is insurmountable. Now in its third season, Fox's "Empire" is currently averaging a 3.7 in the adults 18-49 demo, and while that live-same-day reckoning is likely to jump to a 4.6 upon application of the C3 currency, the once red-hot hip-hopera has faded considerably. (Season two of "Empire" averaged a 5.6 in C3, which was down slightly from the 5.9 it delivered in its gravity-defying opening run back in the winter of 2015.)

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