12 years ago, AMC’s The Walking Dead aired to an audience of 5.35 million people.
The show would go on to become one of the most watched on television, at one point reaching 17.30 million people with a single episode. At its peak, the Walking Dead was being watched by an average of 8 million viewers per episode, it’s highest performers were regularly doubling that number. Yet when the show aired its series finale on November 20th of this year, it was watched by just 2.26 million.
Considering the show’s performance over the last few seasons, that number is a high point.
So when did the series start to decline? How did The Walking Dead lose its massive audience? And why does AMC continue to launch spin-offs of the series?
Data obtained from Nielsen ratings provide some insight into the show’s troubles. The above graph displays the total views of each season. The fifth season of The Walking Dead is the most watched with 230.09 million viewers.
When looking at the data, it’s clear that season 6 is where the show first began to decline. Although its numbers were still high, it had an 8% decrease in views compared to the previous season. This was the first time the show didn’t gain viewers during a season.
Opinions on season 6 are divided. Some of the most significant controversies the series faced occurred during the season, such as the fake-out “death” of Glenn Rhee (played by Steven Yeun) who survives a horde of zombies by crawling under a dumpster.
Renee Hansen, editor and writer at UndeadWalking.com says that some viewers found the fake-out ridiculous. “The absurdity of that was like ‘What is going on with this?’, especially for people who didn’t care about the character, because then they’re like ‘Okay, this is just a waste of my time,” said Hansen.
Another point of controversy is the infamous cliffhanger ending of season 6. The episode, which has a 42% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, drew criticism for its pacing, plot, and most of all, its ending.
The episode introduced the comic character Negan (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in a scene long-awaited by fans. However, viewers would have to wait until the beginning of the next season to find out which characters Negan had killed, effectively removing all tension and build-up over that year.
Many saw the cliffhanger as an attempt by the network to draw in larger audiences. It might have had the opposite effect. Despite season 7 premiering to 17.03 million people, it would drop more viewers than season 6, with a 14% decrease.
Below is a timeline of episode view counts.
So, if season 6 is where the show’s numbers began to decline, who (or what) can be blamed? To some viewers, the answer is former showrunner, Scott Gimple.
Gimple was promoted to showrunner of The Walking Dead for season 4 and would retain the role until season 9. His time as showrunner would prove so unpopular that a petition was created calling for his replacement. It received over 87,000 signatures. Angela Kang, a longtime writer of the series, eventually replaced Gimple in 2018.
However, Gimple might not be the only one to blame. Hasen says, ‘At the end of the day, there are more people than just him pulling the strings.” That’s an important point to remember, as even with a new showrunner, The Walking Dead continued to bleed viewers until the end.
Another possible reason is viewer burnout. After 12 years on air, and a show which had a (relatively) unchanging premise, it’s not unreasonable that viewers stopped watching in favour of fresher content. Especially as the series started to launch spin-off shows.
Currently, 6 total Walking Dead spin-offs are either in the works, have aired, or are still on the air. When looking at the declining numbers of the main series, it may seem strange that AMC has so many plans for spin-offs.
Hansen wonders if AMC’s streaming service, AMC Plus, might play a role, “If they’re getting enough traction on AMC Plus…I just wonder if they’re thinking they can turn AMC plus into this mega streaming service, like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.” It would make sense, considering that the spin-off, Tales of The Walking Dead is currently only available on AMC Plus.
Only time will tell what the future holds for The Walking Dead, but with the airing of the series finale, a chapter of TV history has been closed after 12 years.