TV Long View: The Extraordinary Gap Between Cable's Ratings Haves and Have Nots

The Walking Dead - In the Long Run - Publicity Stills - Split - H 2019
AMC/Photofest; Starz

In the week of Oct. 28, the most-watched scripted series on network TV was CBS' Blue Bloods. Including three days of delayed viewing, the crime drama drew 11.32 million viewers.

The least-watched broadcast show, Dynasty, brought in just 562,000 people in Nielsen's live-plus-3 ratings. Blue Bloods, then, had an audience about 20 times larger than The CW's soap.

It's a big gap — but it pales next to the chasm separating the most- and least-watched cable scripted series that week.

AMC's The Walking Dead ranks first for the week among cable's 23 primetime scripted shows, drawing just under 5 million viewers (4.97 million, to be precise) over three days. At No. 23 is a series on Starz called In the Long Run, which aired two episodes on Friday, Nov. 1. They averaged — and this is not a typo — 20,000 viewers. That means The Walking Dead had more than 248 times the viewers of In the Long Run.

Put another way, Walking Dead's audience is roughly equal to the combined populations of the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Long Run's audience is about the same size as the population of the Northern California city of Oroville.

There are several caveats here: AMC, which airs The Walking Dead, is in about three times more homes than Starz is. Walking Dead is in its 10th season and is AMC's flagship series. Long Run, a family comedy created by and starring Idris Elba, is a British import Starz began airing less than a month ago with next to no promotion.

The massive difference between those two shows speaks to how widely varied the cable landscape is, with subscriber-based outlets like Starz, broad-appeal channels like AMC and a host of niche networks all competing for attention.

Long Run might be an extreme case, but even setting it aside, the gap between the show directly above it in the rankings, FXX's shortform showcase Cake (102,000 viewers), and Walking Dead is still huge: The AMC drama is nearly 49 times larger than Cake.

Broadcast is a (somewhat) more level playing field. The CW may be harder to find in smaller markets, and it programs for a narrower slice of the audience than the likes of CBS, ABC, Fox and NBC. But it's still available one way or another to virtually the entire country. Dynasty and its 562,000 viewers would have ranked 17th among cable scripted series for the week of Oct. 28, just ahead of the series finale of The Deuce on HBO. On broadcast, it's dead last among 57 scripted shows for the week.

Walking Dead is itself something of an outlier on cable. For all its (steep) ratings declines in the past two-plus seasons, it still is by far the top scripted series on ad-supported cable at the moment. The Nov. 3 episode had 90 percent more viewers after three days than the second-biggest show, FX's American Horror Story (2.61 million). Blue Bloods had just an 11 percent margin over NBC's second-place Chicago Med (10.17 million viewers) that week. Through six weeks of the season, the most-watched network scripted series, CBS' NCIS (14.52 million viewers after three days), has a 29 percent lead over the second-place show — NCIS lead-out FBI (11.27 million).

Even without The Walking Dead on the air, however, the gap between the top and bottom of the cable rankings remains persistently huge. In the eight weeks before the AMC show's season premiere, the leader on cable had an audience that was, on average, 84 times bigger than the bottom-ranked series.

It's a staggeringly large gulf, and a prime illustration of how "cable" encompasses a host of different approaches to the business.

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