Overnight ratings are in for Sunday night’s The Walking Dead, and although many headlines will emphasize the fact that it’s the lowest-rated season finale in five years, it doesn’t tell the whole story. It is true that 11.3 million total viewers for the season finale is lower than any other season finale since 2012. However, there are a number of caveats. First of all, 11.3 million viewers makes the finale the highest-rated episode since the midseason premiere. It’s nearly one million viewers more than last week’s episode. Second, The Walking Dead season finale faced stiff competition this week from the Big Little Lies finale on HBO and the return of Wrestlemania.
More importantly, however, is this: Overnight ratings have been trending downwards all season for The Walking Dead, but overnight ratings are almost “meaningless.” Some networks — like FX — won’t even report on overnight ratings anymore, because so many more viewers are added on DVR. The Americans, for instance, nearly triples its ratings once DVR viewership is accounted for, growing from a show that should be cancelled with around 900,000 viewers to a modestly rated cable drama with 2.4 million viewers.
So while The Walking Dead has been losing some overnight viewers, its overall viewership — once DVRs are accounted for — is holding relatively steady at around 15-16 million viewers this season. It’s closest competition on cable? Major Crimes with about 4.7 million viewers. In other words, even though The Walking Dead is not performing as well as it did in seasons three through five, it’s still far and away the highest rated show on cable. In fact, once DVR viewership is accounted for, this year’s The Walking Dead season finale — the lowest in five years — will still take in nearly 3 million more viewers than the Game of Thrones season finale, which was easily the highest rated Game of Thrones season finale ever.
We should also note that part of the reason overnight ratings for The Walking Dead are down but overall ratings have held relatively steady is because there hasn’t been as much urgency to watch episodes live this year because, after the deaths of Glenn and Abraham, viewers weren’t as concerned about being spoiled. While there was a massive amount of attention surrounding the arrival of Negan last year, there was less urgency about the death of Sasha, which most viewers knew was coming. Viewers were probably far more sensitive to being spoiled on the Big Little Lies finale this year.
Still better news? The Walking Dead ended the season on a high note with critics. The episode scored a 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which reflected the upward trend for the series in the back half of season 7 (the episode scored better than all but one episode from the front half). Personally, I’d give the episode an 85 percent up until the shootout, and a 5 percent for the shootout itself. It was a mess.