Dying Is Easy, Ratings Are Hard: 'Walking Dead' Slips but Remains a TV Monster

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Chandler Riggs as Carl Grimes in the season premiere of 'The Walking Dead' on Sunday.
Chandler Riggs as Carl Grimes in the season premiere of 'The Walking Dead' on Sunday. Credit: Greg Nicotero/AMC

TV's top-rated scripted series staggered back onto the tube last Sunday night, and while the ratings marked a five-year low for a season premiere, AMC's "The Walking Dead" is still putting up numbers that are the envy of the broadcast networks.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same day data, the season eight opener averaged 11.4 million viewers and a 5.0 in the demo, which works out to 6.49 million adults 18 to 49. Time-shifting in the handful of hours after the official 9 p.m. EDT airing (Nielsen's cutoff for live-same day is 3 a.m.) accounted for nearly half (45 percent) of those demo deliveries, as some 2.89 million adults 18 to 49 caught up on the action via their DVRs.

If the ratings were low by "Walking Dead" standards—last season's skull-crushing, cliffhanger-resolving opener scared up 17.4 million viewers and a 8.4 in the demo, or 10.7 million adults under 50—the show remains a monster hit for AMC. The 67-minute episode eclipsed every other scripted option on the tube Sunday night. For the sake of context, the No. 2 non-NFL show, Fox's "The Simpsons," averaged a 1.6 in live-same-day, or less than one-third of the demo that tuned in to the zombie apocalypse serial.

At this rather early stage of the 2017-18 broadcast season, NBC's "This Is Us" is averaging roughly the same number of overall viewers as Sunday's installment of "The Walking Dead," although the cable drama is beating NBC's sophomore powerhouse among advertiser-coveted viewers. Through its first four episodes, the elder-skewing "This Is Us" is averaging a 3.2 in the "dollar demo"—around 4.1 million adults 18 to 49.

One advantage "This Is Us" holds over "The Walking Dead" is that it actually delivers additional commercial impressions in playback. According to Nielsen, the Sept. 26 season premiere of "This Is Us" improved from an already impressive 3.9 in live-same-day to a 4.4 in the C3 currency, which is meant to reflect commercial ratings over three days of viewing. Seven days of time-shifting brought the commercial deliveries all the way up to a 4.7.

"The Walking Dead," however, loses ground upon the conversion from live-same day to C3; last season, the show averaged a 5.4 in live-same day but dipped to a 5.1 in the currency, which translates to a net loss of around 385,000 commercial impressions per episode.

Of course, it's probably worth noting that the three-tenths of a points "The Walking Dead" lost last season upon conversion to the currency nearly matches some flailing broadcast shows' overall demo deliveries. For example, ABC's Sunday night drama "Ten Days in the Valley" is averaging just a 0.4 rating over the course of four episodes, good for around 515,000 adults 18 to 49. And yes, despite the historically grim ratings, "Ten Days" remains on the ABC schedule largely because, under the new TV business model, nothing ever gets cancelled.

For a brief period, "The Walking Dead" could lay claim to being TV's top-rated program, full-stop, as it regularly beat "Sunday Night Football" in the demo. Those days are now just a memory, despite the NFL's recent ratings slide. NBC's fogbound Falcons-Patriots broadcast on Sunday averaged 19.2 million viewers, of whom 8.41 million were members of the 18-to-49-year-old demo. The rematch of Super Bowl LI was up 9 percent from the 7.72 million adults 18 to 49 that NBC drew with its year-ago Seahawks-Cardinals game.

With an average unit cost hovering around $460,000 for a 30-second spot, the cost of reaching 1,000 "Walking Dead" fanatics was just over the $70 mark, making it a relative bargain, especially when compared to other options on the Sunday night TV menu. If "Ten Days in the Valley" continued to price out at the $116,849 per unit ABC negotiated in the upfront (an unlikely prospect, given the show's dodgy track record), the CPM would work out to $226.89. And you thought zombies were scary.

As has been the case since the show premiered on Halloween night in 2010, the advertisers that flocked to the season opener of "The Walking Dead" were largely devoted to hawking movies, video games, fast food and digital gadgets. Among the studios that bought time in Sunday's episode were Paramount Pictures ("Suburbicon"), Lionsgate ("Jigsaw"), Marvel ("Thor: Ragnarok") and Warner Bros. ("Justice League"). PlayStation and Xbox clamored for time in the premiere, while Captain Morgan, Wild Turkey and Dos Equis entreated viewers to wash down their Popeyes, Taco Bell and Carl's Jr. with their wares.

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