After Ten Years, Can ‘The Walking Dead’ Help Save Cable TV?

The linear ratings for The Walking Dead are not what they once were, but for what cable show isn’t that true? Overall entertainment consumption is not down — see, e.g., the surge in Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+ subscriptions during the pandemic — but people continue to increasingly watch television outside of the confines cable box. As linear ratings have declined overall, so have ratings for The Walking Dead as well.

Still, it easily remained the biggest show on basic cable last season, averaging 5.4 million viewers and a 1.9 rating among adults, age 18-49, with a week of delayed viewing. That’s not just the top show on cable, it makes The Walking Dead the 11th most popular show among all primetime series, dead even with CBS’s Survivor, which has been around twice as long as TWD. Better Call Saul, by the way, ranked fourth for the year, and despite slumping ratings, I suspect Fear the Walking Dead isn’t too far behind among the highest rated cable series. Among the Top 100 shows in all of primetime, however, only three scripted cable series made the cut — in addition to The Walking Dead, FX’s American Horror Story and Mayans MC also landed in the top 100.

With a spin-off, The World Beyond, still to come for The Walking Dead, it feels like AMC is in some ways being asked to save cable. The other basic cable stalwart, FX, is now owned by Disney and streams on Hulu, while National Geographic is available on Disney. The USA Network and Bravo will be available as part of the NBC/Universal’s Peacock streaming service out later this month. AMC, however, remains one of the few networks that cannot be watched without a cable subscription, although with AMC Premiere (available to cable subscribers) in place, it’s uncertain how much longer that will remain the case, especially as AMC Networks has had success with its niche subscription channels like Shudder and Acorn TV.

In other words, for now, those cable boxes have a lot riding on The Walking Dead, especially since the two seasons of The World Beyond will not be licensed out to another streaming service in America as AMC tries to keep subscribers tethered to their cable boxes for their TWD fix (The Walking Dead re-airs on Netflix, while Fear the Walking Dead appears on Hulu, both nearly a year after they originally aired). That puts a lot of pressure on The Walking Dead universe, which has been off the air since mid-April because of the Coronavirus, though it had had plans to air for 40 consecutive weeks in 2020. The network has been feeling the pain of that, though they are hopeful that it can rebound when The World Beyond and The Walking Dead finale arrive this fall.

It’ll be interesting to see if there are any cable subscribers left by then.