On Halloween Day, October 31, 2010, The Walking Dead debuted with an episode titled, “Days Gone By.” That episode fetched 5.3 million viewers. It was the most watched episode of television on cable that year in the 18-49 demographic. After subsequent re-airs that week, “Days Gone By” would become the highest-rated scripted cable telecast ever at that time. Shows like FX’s The Shield had proven years earlier that serious dramas could succeed on cable, a lesson that Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Nip/Tuck, and Damages had also illustrated.
The Walking Dead, however, proved that a cable drama could flourish and compete commercially with network television. In 2012, The Walking Dead bested every single show on broadcast television in the 18-49 demographic. By season five, The Walking Dead was producing the most watch episodes of cable television ever, records that still stand today. The explosion of The Walking Dead on cable, meanwhile, completed the transformation of AMC from a network known for airing classic movies to one known for serious and successful dramas, dramas which would also play instrumental roles in the growing success of Netflix, which has licensing rights to Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead. Indeed. not only did the AMC drama transform cable and increase the popularity of Netflix, it’s a huge global hit, too.
Even now, in the midst of its 10th season, The Walking Dead is the biggest show on ad-supported cable, by a 2-1 margin over American Horror Story. The Live+7 ratings for the most recent episode in which ratings are available? 5.5 million, or about the same as the series premiere a decade before. But in 2010, when it debuted, it was not being watched by millions more people on Netflix, or tens of millions more people around the globe. It did not have a spin-off series, Fear the Walking Dead, which has consistently been in the top 5 of all scripted shows on ad-supported cable in the ratings, or The Talking Dead, the first major after-show discussion series. There have been a lot of weeks in the last several years, in fact, in which the only show with better ratings on all of cable other than The Talking Dead is The Walking Dead itself.
The series has also jostled with Game of Thrones for the most illegally downloaded show nearly every year of the decade, though by the end of the decade it had surpassed Thrones but fallen behind The Mandalorian. Throughout its run, The Walking Dead has also consistently been one of the ten most talked about shows every year on Twitter.
There has been some controversy, of course. Early seasons struggled with diversity in casting before the series turned itself around and became a shining example of diversity, both in front of and behind the camera. The gruesome and violent death of Glenn at the hands of Negan soured a lot of viewers on the series, as well. Aside from profit-sharing lawsuits, the very unfortunate death of a stuntman, some contract negotiations involving Lauren Cohan, and some hurt feelings after the death of Chandler Riggs’ character, Carl Grimes, there has been surprisingly little drama behind-the-scenes for a series that is a decade old. The sense that most have is that the cast and crew is like family, despite the Georgia heat, and the life of all the cast members continues beyond the show even after their deaths in the various comic conventions around the world, which are heavily attended by both former and present cast members.
There are very few of the original cast members left, of course, but The Walking Dead has managed to successfully navigate the loss and gain of characters, as well as cycling through four showrunners, finding recently in Angela Kang the show’s best showrunner in 10 seasons. Indeed, it’s a decade later, and while linear ratings continue to decline for The Walking Dead (along with everything else on TV), the series still shows no sign of slowing down. A third The Walking Dead series premieres in the Spring 2020. A series of movies based on the Rick Grimes character are expected to screen in theaters over the next few years. It’s also endeavoring to become to TV what the MCU is for the big screen, and AMC clearly plans to continue to ride this horse as long as it possibly can into the next decade. There is talk every year of its decline, but the franchise is surprisingly resilient and even with a fraction of the linear ratings that it had in its peak, The Walking Dead is still poised to continue to dominate and transform the television landscape well into the 2020s.