'Walking Dead' and 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians': Inside the End of Two Mega-Hits

The-Walking-Dead-and-Keeping-Up-With-the-Kardashians
Courtesy of AMC; E! Entertainment Television/Photofest

AMC's The Walking Dead and E!'s Keeping Up With the Kardashians are both multibillion-dollar brands that have become global franchises and launched multiple spinoffs. But while the two shows are extremely different, the two franchises have more in common when it comes to their end games than the fact that both were announced this week.

On Sept. 8, Kim Kardashian revealed that the famous family would kick E!'s cameras out of their lives and wrap Keeping Up With the Kardashians in 2021 after 14 years, 20 seasons and at least seven spinoffs. A day later, AMC revealed that The Walking Dead would wrap after its supersized 11th season in in 2022. The flagship will be followed in 2023 by a spinoff featuring fan-favorites Norman Reedus (Daryl) and Melissa McBride (Carol), marking the third scripted offshoot of the flagship from creator Robert Kirkman.

Both hits are global sensations that quickly became the calling cards of their respective networks, with both basic-cable networks utilizing them over the years as a way to launch new series. The Walking Dead and Kardashians are cash cows for their respective owners and profit participants and helped launch the careers of many of its cast members. (The Walking Dead can easily be credited for jumpstarting Danai Gurira's career, leading to Marvel's Black Panther, for example.)

So then why are both shows ending?

For The Walking Dead, the answer is math. Scripted series traditionally get more expensive as they age when factoring in things like cast and producer salaries and licensing fees. AMC's main source of revenue on the flagship series is ad revenue. While the zombie drama remains one of the most-watched programs on television, its ratings are a fraction of what they were during the show's heyday. And while the ratings have softened over the years — the season 10 finale was its lowest rated, ever — ad rates for the series have declined, too.

What's more, the flagship drama's lucrative international rights are locked up via a decade-old deal with Fox International. In addition, the streaming rights to The Walking Dead were sold years ago to Netflix. "Ad sales was the only way to make money on The Walking Dead [flagship show] at this point," says one source familiar with the show's financial structure.

By launching a new spinoff featuring The Walking Dead's two most popular characters, AMC will have the option to sell international and streaming rights to the series while also reducing the show's budget and licensing fees. The plan, say sources, for the Carol and Daryl spinoff and to end the show around season 11 was put in place well before former AMC president Charlie Collier — who originally greenlit The Waking Dead — departed the network in 2018.

As for why seasons 10 and 11 added six and eight episodes, respectively, to their runs, that comes down to economics, too. So-called supersized seasons help keep things like actor salaries and the show's overall budgets the same. (Taken together, the extra 14 episodes could have become a 12th season, triggering things like salary increases.)

Keeping Up With the Kardashians, meanwhile, sources say the family really was ready to walk away from the show. The decision caught NBCUniversal by surprise considering a year ago, family matriarch Kris Jenner was intrigued by NBCU's then-unnamed streaming service and took a meeting with executives to learn more about the platform that would become Peacock. By the spring, after a period of radio silence that executives at NBCU thought might have been a stalling tactic to either run out their current deal or shop the series elsewhere, the family returned to inform the company that they were done.

The move caught NBCU off guard as E! was having their own conversations about doing more with the Kardashians and Peacock had earmarked funds for yet another Kardashians spinoff that would be exclusive to the streamer. Speaking of the streamer, sources note that there were "rumblings" that the Kardashians were unhappy about payments they received for the show's licensing deal to Peacock as those terms were outlined in their "ancient" contract.

While the E! show used to serve as a platform to help launch beauty, lifestyle and fitness ventures, the family's social media presence easily dwarfs the show's linear ratings at this point. The five sisters, for example, each have at least 100 million followers on Instagram alone. By comparison, the most recent season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians in the spring averaged about 1.9 million viewers — after seven days of delayed viewing — on E!

"Their brands are so big that they don't need the show anymore," says one source familiar with the negotiations.

In terms of the costs of the flagship Kardashians series, that remained relatively the same at an estimated $1.5 million per episode. The family is paid a lump sum to be divided among them that can add up to around $5 million per episode. "The show is a loss leader, but it keeps E! as a top 20 network," says the source. Keeping the network in the top 20 also helps to keep ad rates at a premium and helps the network launch other programming, which will now be important as E! begins to plot a future without the faces of the network.

And if the Kardashians decide at some point down the line that they'd like to return to TV, be it at E! or another outlet, that might prove tricky. E! owns the show, the trademark and the rights to the show and their pre-existing contract for the series would prevent them from creating a similar show, even with a different title, elsewhere. Any programming they did elsewhere would also have to be vastly different from the concept of Keeping Up, too. Unlike The Walking Dead, the Kardashians would still likely be bound to their original contract with E! for the show and have to negotiate to open up the terms of that initial deal.

"It will be hard for them to go elsewhere," says another source.