The ratings for The Walking Dead are not what they once were, but anyone reading the trades this week would be left with the impression that the show is in dire straits. ‘Walking Dead’ Season 8 Midseason Premiere Is Show’s Lowest-Rated Ever,’ says Variety; ‘Walking Dead’ suffers worst midseason premiere ratings in show’s history,‘ says Fox; or ‘The Walking Dead’s midseason premiere hit a new ratings low,’ says the AV Club headline.
Yes, the midseason premiere overnight ratings were the lowest ratings for a midseason premiere ever, but that hardly tells the whole story, because no one pays attention to overnight ratings anymore except, for some reason, where it concerns The Walking Dead. Networks like FX don’t even look at overnight ratings anymore and haven’t in four years. They call them “meaningless,” and it’s true: The trades rarely report on overnight ratings for any other show on television except The Walking Dead because so many television watches time-shift their viewing, and that includes The Walking Dead, which regularly sees a 45-50 percent hike in viewers on DVR.
In the case of the midseason premiere, there was also something else at play: A little show called the “Olympics Closing Ceremony.” Nearly every network took new programming off the air for two weeks so as not to go head to head against the Olympics, but The Walking Dead took a chance and returned during the closing ceremonies. And guess what? The Walking Dead bested the Closing Ceremony in the key 18-49 demo by 20 percent, although that is not to say that there weren’t plenty of 18-49 Olympics viewers who didn’t wait until Monday night to watch The Walking Dead.
What’s more is that, while it was a lower midseason premiere than past years, the episode actually saw an 8 percent uptick over last year’s midseason finale, despite competition from the Winter Olympics. Moreover, while the second midseason premiere barely edged out the eighth midseason premiere in overnight ratings, there’s been considerably more time-shifted viewing since the second season in 2012, so to call it the lowest-rated midseason premiere is somewhat misleading.
Indeed, those overnight ratings barely tell the whole story, because The Walking Dead typically adds more DVR viewers on Sunday nights than live and DVR viewers combine for most shows. For instance, the midseason finale added 3.6 million viewers on DVR. The next highest rated scripted program that night was TNT’s Major Crimes, which earned 3.9 million viewers LIVE + DVR viewers. In fact, on a typical Sunday night when The Walking Dead airs, the closest competition it gets is from The Talking Dead, which receives around 4 million live+DVR viewers, or one-third of the overall viewers for The Walking Dead.
In other words, while ratings for The Walking Dead have slid in recent years, it is still by far the highest rated show on cable (at least while Game of Thrones is on hiatus), and nothing else even comes close. Probably the show that does come closest on cable right now is American Horror Story, which triples its live ratings on DVR and usually ends up with around 4 million total viewers, compared to the 12 million total viewers for The Walking Dead.
Almost any drama that survives eight seasons is going to see some ratings erosion. However, in addition to the millions of viewers who watch the show on cable, there are many millions more who watch the series internationally, plus several million more who eventually catch up with the show on Netflix or that watch it illegally (it was the second most pirated show in 2017, behind only Game of Thrones). There is still a lot of life left in this series, and no reason right now to believe — for better or worse — that it can’t last 12 seasons or more.
Ratings via TVByTheNumbers