The good news for fans of the AMC series is this: The Walking Dead is the highest rated drama on cable, and it’s not even close. Once DVR viewership is accounted for, it still average over 15 million viewers a week. On cable right now, The Walking Dead’s closest scripted competition is Major Crimes on TNT with 4.2 million people (which isn’t even as many viewers as the 5 million that watch The Talking Dead). However, The Walking Dead may no longer be able to boast that it’s the highest rated drama on all of television for much longer, because it’s now running neck and neck with NBC’s This Is Us (15.75 million versus 15.70 million for the last week where 7 days of DVR ratings are available).
More concerning, however, is the downward trend in overnight ratings for The Walking Dead. This last week saw its lowest overnight ratings in four years when it only managed 10.16 million viewers, and some outlets are characterizing that as “dangerous” for the AMC series. It’s not, and anyone who suggests that ratings for The Walking Dead are in a free fall is wrong, because the overnight ratings do not take into account the other 5 million viewers who watch it on their DVR (or the millions that download it illegally), nor do the overnight numbers emphasize that The Walking Dead is still the most dominant drama on television.
Nevertheless, there is a downward trend. However, the drop from 17 million overnight viewers to 12 million overnight viewers after the seventh season premiere is misleading. Yes, it fell five million viewers after one episode, but more people than usual watched the premiere live, and overnight ratings have averaged in the 14 million range in past years. Nevertheless, overnight ratings have dropped from 12 million to 10 million over the course of this season. There is noticeable erosion in viewership (some of which may be attributed to Donald Trump, strangely), and there is some concern over the longevity of a series Robert Kirkman and AMC hope to run for at least 12 seasons. In the unlikely event that the ratings continue to decline at its current rate — shedding around 2 million viewers per season — the series would probably bottom out at around 5 million overall viewers per week in 2022 and end its run with a relative thud (and yet, still be one of the highest rated shows on cable).
There is one way, however, that AMC could virtually guarantee that ratings would not only stabilize, but perhaps even rebound, and it’s a plan that’s worked for a many other shows in the past, including Lost and Breaking Bad. It is this: Announce an end date. It doesn’t have even have to be an end date in the near future — The Americans announced their end date in 2016 for 2018; Justified and Breaking Bad let us know two seasons in advance that they were ending their run; Mad Men and Lost announced their end dates three years in advance, and most viewers had a rough idea that Game of Thrones would end after seven seasons after the third season (it has since been extended to eight seasons, although the final two are shortened).
AMC should follow in their footsteps. After this year’s season finale, The Walking Dead should announce an end date five years into the future.
A fixed end date — no matter how far off — gives viewers at least some sense that the show will not have an open-ended run, and that’s especially important for a series like The Walking Dead, which often spins its wheels (as Lost did after season three). With no end in sight, viewers are more likely to bail because they don’t have a good sense of if or when a series will ever conclude. An end date also lets us speculate on the finale and offers hope that we may one day get some answers about whether a cure is possible, if the zombie virus will go dormant, or if it will eventually run its course and everyone on the planet will die. Most importantly, it will give showrunner Scott Gimple an end to focus on.
An end game is important for any series, but especially so in a drama that has already been running for seven seasons. Even the best dramas run out of gas after six or seven seasons, and with the exception of Grey’s Anatomy, serialized dramas simply are not built this long (and Grey’s Anatomy, which has run for 13 seasons, has a lot of episodic elements to it). Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries have also run longer, but nothing on the level of The Walking Dead, which is expected to keep the attention of 15 million viewers year after year.
Twelve seasons would be an incredibly impressive run, and if AMC were wise, it would make that official. It gives the series enough time to finish the existing run of The Walking Dead comics and begin a slow march toward the end. However, instead of hobbling toward the end date while shedding viewers along the way, it could stabilize the existing fanbase (and perhaps add new viewers who pick it up knowing there’s an endgame) into 2022. By that time, hopefully AMC will have found a new flagship series to replace what would still be, by that point, the second longest running serialized drama of the modern era and The Walking Dead could theoretically still go out with its head held high.