Each season over the last three years, after another The Walking Dead finale air, we are bombarded with alarming headlines like, “The Walking Dead’ Season Finale Ratings Drop To Lowest Ever,” or “The Walking Dead Season 9 Finale Limps Off With Series-Low Ratings,” and “TV Ratings: The Walking Dead Has Smallest-Ever Finale.” After another round of these headlines, I always feel compelled to put those ratings numbers into perspective, and this season is no different.
The headlines are technically true, but they lack context. Yes, it is true that only 5.02 million live viewers tuned into the snowy finale, which is the lowest-rated finale in the series run, falling lower than the 5.97 million viewers who tuned in live to watch the season one finale. It’s also less than half the viewers who tuned in live for the finale just two seasons ago. However, and this is a big “however,” those ratings are only overnight ratings that fail to account for DVR viewership, and ratings based on DVR viewership weren’t even kept back when The Walking Dead finished out its first season in 2010.
It’s been nine years since that first season finale aired, and a lot has changed in the way viewers watch television. There’s a lot more time shifting. Viewers also watch episodes in less conventional means, through Sling TV or YouTube TV or on other streaming devices, days or weeks after the episode airs, and obviously there are literally millions of cord cutters now that don’t even have cable, who won’t see season nine until it airs on Netflix later this year.
That’s true of all cable shows, in fact, and so one of the best ways to measure a show’s success is how well it’s doing compared to the competition. In that respect, it’s still not even close. After seven-days of DVR viewership, the season finale of The Walking Dead was seen by 7.4 million people. During that same week, the second-highest rated scripted program on cable was Showtime’s Billions, with roughly 1.58 million viewers (after 7 days of DVR viewership). Nothing else was even close. In fact, even among all programs (scripted and unscripted), the closest competition was the 4.6 million viewers of Discovery Channel’s Curse of Oak Island, although in the 18-49 demo, The Walking Dead bested Curse 2.9 to 1.2, far more than doubling the Discovery reality series.
The Walking Dead can, in fact, continue to boast that it’s the highest rated show on cable, at least until Game of Thrones returns. But in six weeks, when Game of Thrones is over for good, The Walking Dead will reclaim the title of highest-rated show on cable, and it’s likely a title it will maintain for a long time to come. That’s why AMC feels comfortable in green-lighting a second spin-off. Why not? Fear the Walking Dead is the fourth highest rated show on cable among the 18-49 demo, and if the second spin-off can manage numbers equal to that, AMC will be plenty happy.
Indeed, as AMC President Sarah Barnett told Vulture, there’s plenty for the network to crow about where it concerns The Walking Dead.
“Our decline has really mirrored the declines across basic cable. We just had higher to fall from. The fact that we are still the number one show by a margin of two to one is quite something. One of the things that I take such encouragement from is the fact that our ratings are pretty stabilized. We did see declines at the beginning of [season nine], but through all of the back half of this season, we are seeing the kind of stability that we’ve never really seen in this property before.”
The ratings for The Walking Dead remind me of the ratings for another long-running drama, Grey’s Anatomy, which peaked at around 25 million in season 3, and while it has seen significant ratings erosion since then, it’s still one of the highest rated shows on all of television in what is now its 15th season. Likewise, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a spin-off of Law & Order, is in the midst of its 20th season and still going strong, even though it gets lower ratings than The Walking Dead.
All of which is to say: There’s still a lot of ratings life left in The Walking Dead, and if Angela Kang can continue to keep those ratings stabilized as she did in season 9, it could maintain its position as the top-rated show on cable for several more years while it’s spin-offs maintain likely positions in the top five.