'Walking Dead' Ratings Have Fallen Faster and Harder Than Those of Other Long-Running Hits

The Walking Dead - Season 9, Episode 3 - Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - Publicity -H 2018
Courtesy of Gene Page/AMC

The seventh-season premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead had the show's second-biggest audience ever. The resolution of a cliff-hanger from the season six finale, delivered via Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) barbed-wire bat, drew a massive 8.4 same-day rating among adults 18-49 and a little over 17 million viewers; a week of delayed viewing brought the totals up to 10.7 and 21.5 million viewers.

It's been all downhill from there — and down an unusually steep hill at that.

From season seven to now, average same-day ratings for The Walking Dead have declined by a precipitous 60 percent in adults 18-49 (5.4 average for season seven, 2.1 thus far in season nine) and 53 percent in viewers (11.35 million to 5.35 million). The show has recorded its two smallest same-day audiences ever in the past two weeks.

Delayed-viewing figures have moved in proportion to the linear ratings drops: At a 4.0 in adults 18-49 and 9.36 million viewers in live plus seven-day ratings, the Oct. 7 premiere of season nine is 63 percent lower than the season seven debut in the demo and down 54 percent in viewers.

Multiplatform viewing makes up for some of those losses, to be sure, but not all 6 million people who Nielsen says have left the show are suddenly watching via AMC Premiere or the network's ad-supported digital player.

Just about every show's audience declines as it ages. What's notable about The Walking Dead's declines is that they're steeper than those of a number of other long-running hit series at the same stage of their runs.

The Hollywood Reporter compared the season seven to season nine declines for dramas Grey's Anatomy, NCIS and Law & Order: SVU, comedies The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, and singing competition American Idol with those of The Walking Dead. All of them had much smaller ratings drops.

On average, the other shows fell by 22 percent of their 18-49 rating over those years (SVU was excluded, as full 18-49 ratings for the mid-2000s aren't easily found online) and 16 percent in viewers. The worst fall of the bunch belongs to Modern Family, but its drops of 38.5 percent in the 18-49 demo and 28 percent in viewers are far less severe than those of The Walking Dead.

All that said, The Walking Dead had farther to fall than most of those other shows — its seventh season outrated all but season seven of Idol in adults 18-49. It's still the top-rated series currently on cable, and it's not even close. In a given week, less than 1 percent of the thousands of cable shows that air in primetime reach even a 1.0 among adults 18-49 after a week of viewing.

The Walking Dead just is no longer the world-beating behemoth it was even a couple of years ago. Its live plus seven-day averages over its first two episodes rank among the top five shows on TV (not including sports), but 30 series bring in more viewers.

The Walking Dead has yet to be renewed for a 10th season, but both the flagship show and the larger franchise are likely to remain cornerstones at AMC for some time as the cable network plots an expanded universe under former showrunner turned chief creative officer Scott M. Gimple. They just won't be striking fear into rival programmers the way they once did.