Reports of a 'Walking Dead' Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

Chart: The Year's Top 20 Scripted Shows on Ad-Supported Cable

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Ratings slide be damned, AMC's zombie-apocalypse serial remains a juggernaut.
Ratings slide be damned, AMC's zombie-apocalypse serial remains a juggernaut. Credit: Gene Page/AMC

AMC on Sunday night wrapped up the first half of the seventh season of "The Walking Dead," and if the show has begun to experience the inevitable ratings declines that are visited upon every veteran series, to characterize it as anything but a monster hit is to willfully ignore the tumultuous state of ad-supported TV.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the 86-minute midseason finale averaged 10.6 million viewers and a 5.1 demo rating, which translates to 6.53 million adults 18 to 49. To put that advertiser-friendly turnout into context, the various scripted offerings on the broadcast networks that same night averaged a meager 1.1 in the demo.

Here's another way of looking at it: That other splashy big-reach drama, Fox's "Empire," hasn't notched a 5.1 in live-same-day since Oct. 7, 2015.

Comparisons with previous seasons, however, have left some analysts and stats enthusiasts gravely shaking their heads. Ratings for the Dec. 11 telecast were down 27% compared to the 7.0 delivered by the season-six midseason capper, and with an average draw of a 5.7 in the demo, the entire eight-episode arc was off an entire ratings point, or down 15% versus the first half of the previous season. (Live-same-day deliveries of adults 25-to-54, another key AMC target, were down 13%.)

Unfortunately, "The Walking Dead" can't expect to recapture any of those lost commercial impressions in playback. Unlike most broadcast shows, which on average gain around two-tenths of a ratings point upon conversion from live-same-day to C3, AMC's zombie-apocalypse serial actually loses ground in the industry-currency ratings. For example, the massive season opener, which scared up an 8.4 in live-same-day, adjusted down to a still-mighty 7.5 in C3. Subsequent installments dipped between two-tenths and four-tenths of a point in the transactional metric, and while C3 data isn't available for the two most recent episodes, this half-season is on pace to draw a 5.4 in the currency, which would represent a 16% decline versus the year-ago 6.4 C3 rating.

Of course, that a show on basic cable (and in its seventh season, no less) remains TV's No. 1 scripted offering is nothing short of remarkable. And "The Walking Dead's" sudden ratings reversal is by no means unique. While still the biggest scripted show on the broadcast dial, "Empire" is facing contraction issues of its own; season-to-date, the sudsy musical drama is down 31% with an average draw of a 3.3 in live-same-day, although because it also happens to boast the biggest gains in the currency, that only tells part of the story. According to Nielsen, "Empire" is still averaging north of a 4.0 in C3, and is faring even better in the more expansive C7 metric.

As we've seen this season with the national NFL windows, ratings-watchers tend to be big on assigning causality, especially in cases where definitive proof is all but impossible to come by. Take your pick with "The Walking Dead" -- have people churned away from the show because they were put off by the loutish sadism of the premiere, or were they simply less than enchanted with the season's torpid pace, which was only exacerbated by its pivot toward a sort of "Sons of Anarchy"-style maximalism? (Three of the last five episodes ran between 25 and 30 minutes over the show's standard one-hour running time, which naturally allowed AMC to carve out a nice chunk of bonus ad inventory. For example, 45 paid-for commercial spots ran over the course of the 90-minute episode that aired on Dec. 4, a tally that included the TV premiere of the two-and-a-half-minute trailer for Universal Pictures' 2017 reboot of "The Mummy." By way of contrast, the standard-issue Nov. 6 installment of "The Walking Dead" featured 29 ads.)

If you were to try to get to the root cause of every primetime series' seasonal ratings declines, you'd never have enough spare time to actually watch any of the shows. All but six of the 88 broadcast series are down versus the year-ago period, and on a percentage basis, most of the drops are in the double digits. The biggies have been particularly susceptible to the bug that's been going around. "Sunday Night Football," which scorches "The Walking Dead" in the 18-to-49 demo, is down 14% in household ratings, while "Monday Night Football" is off 19% among ESPN's adults 25-to-54 target. "The Big Bang Theory" is off 13% in CBS's core demo, "The Voice" just closed out its eleventh cycle down 17%, "Modern Family" has toppled 18% and all told, primetime ratings at the Big Four nets and the CW are down 9% year-over-year.

All of which makes the reaction to the "Walking Dead" ratings slide seem particularly overblown. (MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson, one of the more gimlet-eyed observers of the media scene, this week downgraded AMCX stock to "sell" from "neutral" after concluding that the flagship network's disproportionate reliance upon "The Walking Dead" increasingly makes it vulnerable to a deceleration in the ad sales marketplace.) Given that the overall supply of ratings points is depressed, the demand for "The Walking Dead" is unlikely to diminish. There are a handful of programming options that provide the old-school reach of "The Walking Dead," and most of these involve a leather-covered prolate spheroid and an average unit cost of more than $500,000 per 30 seconds of airtime.

If AMC indeed has an awful lot riding on the long-term viability of "The Walking Dead," a franchise that it owns outright, it's not as if the cupboard is otherwise bare. The three highest-rated scripted series on basic cable thies year air on AMC; toss in the inexpensive aftershow "Talking Dead" and the network sweeps the top four. As of this year, AMC delivered one-third of all scripted original cable impressions, and at 38 years, the collective median age of those shows was a good 17 years younger than their broadcast counterparts. The zombies may be getting a little ripe, but they're no less rapacious.

If AMC's latest crop of new shows was a mixed bag, with "Preacher" earning a second season while "Feed the Beast" joined the Witness Protection program after its inaugural run, the network looks to add a hit or two with a few series that are now in production. Starring Pierce Brosnan, the ambitious adaptation of Philipp Meyer's Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel "The Son" is a yarn about the turbulent rise and fall of a Texas oil family over three generations. Also in the works for 2017 is "The Terror," a 10-episode anthology series about an arctic abomination that stalks a group of glory-seeking 19th century explorers. "The Terror" stars "Mad Men" alum Jared Harris and is co-executive produced by Ridley Scott.

Also in the hopper is AMC's latest British co-production, "McMafia," which concerns itself with the franchising of organized crime, and "Loaded," a comic drama starring Mary McCormack.

Top 20 Scripted Shows on Ad-Supported Cable*
Show Average number of total viewers in millions A18-49 rating
The Walking Dead (AMC) 11.9M 5.7
Fear the Walking Dead (AMC) 4.19M 1.8
Into the Badlands (AMC) 3.86M 1.8
American Horror Story (FX) 2.93M 1.6
American Crime Story (FX) 3.29M 1.3
South Park (Comedy Central) 1.72M 1.0
Rick and Morty (Adult Swim) 1.97M 1.0
Better Call Saul (AMC) 2.16M 0.9
The Haves and Have Nots (OWN) 2.89M 0.8
Vikings (History) 2.22M 0.7
Rizzoli & Isles (TNT) 4.22M 0.6
If Loving You Is Wrong (OWN) 2.20M 0.6
Greenleaf (OWN) 2.11M 0.6
Preacher (AMC) 1.68M 0.6
Bates Motel (A&E) 1.45M 0.6
Pretty Little Liars (Freeform) 1.2M 0.6
Major Crimes (TNT) 3.68M 0.5
The Last Ship (TNT) 2.23M 0.5
Suits (USA Network) 1.79M 0.5
The Librarians (TNT) 1.78M 0.5
*among total viewers and adults 18-49, 2016 to date. Nielsen live-plus-same-day averages.
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