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The Stumbling Dead: Why The Walking Dead is Losing Ratings

The Walking Dead is among the most popular television shows out there. For cable TV, it’s the most popular show of all time. It pulls in ratings that make network shows envious. That said, the most recent season is not as popular as the previous three. Why?

This is not to say that it’s in a bad place. The Walking Dead is nowhere near getting cancelled. You could cut the ratings in half and it would still be outperforming the cable average by a wide margin. But consider this: The average ratings between season 6 and 7 dropped by nearly 2 million viewers, from 13.15 million to 11.35 million. That’s nearly 15% of viewership, 3 of every 20 viewers bailed. Take out the first episode and the average ratings per episode is less than 11 million. They’ve lost 20% of viewers since season 5.

As I said before, this is still a popular show. Breaking Bad, widely considered the greatest show ever, fell just short of 11 million viewers for its series finale and most watched episode. But Breaking Bad grew in popularity throughout its run while Walking Dead has started the other way. A 15% drop is what statisticians call statistically significant.

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The steepest drop is during a season 7 which opened with over 17 million viewers. It was set up for a return to form, introducing a great new villain. Then, nearly 5 million people decided not to show up again for the next episode. Why?

Let’s first debunk a couple of theories. The decline is not because The Walking Dead is “boring” or a “soap opera.” This is a common refrain among critics of the show. Nothing happens. Everyone has to talk about their feelies. Of course, your subjective opinions are perfectly legitimate if you’re making them about how you feel about show, however they ring false when diagnosing the ratings ills.

The show has always been slow. They spent an entire season on a farm. And yet The Walking Dead is the most popular zombie based entertainment ever.

The boring parts are the character development. Those are the parts that make Hershal’s death so devastating, because we spent all that boring time on his farm seeing that he’s a family man and a good guy, he’s old fashioned but he’s open minded and cares about strangers. He’s not just old guy who gets head chopped off. Sick decapitation bro!

George Romero famously called it a “soap opera with a zombie occasionally.” Yet, the man on the street would recognize a still photo from the Walking Dead much more easily than they would one from anything George Romero has made. As great as he is, as much as he invented the monsters themselves, the characters in his movies might as well be zombies because they’re often pointless meatbags. The show is “slow” because it’s developing characters.

Anecdotally, the zombie genre was not popular when I was young. Zombies were lame. Nobody wanted to be a zombie for Halloween. Nobody was interested in seeing a zombie movie. Zombie fandom was the exclusive realm of hardcore horror fans, the type of horror fans who specifically seek out bargain bin DVD 10 packs of low budget fake blood camp because gore in and of itself is thrilling to them. Which is fine if that’s your thing. But that’s not the case for most people.

In fact, Robert Kirkman, writer of The Walking Dead comic books, in his original pitch to get it published, lied and said he would eventually reveal the zombies were created by aliens. This is because at the time nobody would publish zombie material, because nobody was reading zombie material.

“When I pitched The Walking Dead originally, it was turned down, simply because there had never been a successful zombie book in the history of comics. [But] I wasn’t willing to accept no for an answer. So I said, ‘Oh, well, I forgot to tell you that this is actually a big setup for an alien invasion. So yeah, I kind of tricked them into accepting The Walking Dead.”

The golden age of zombies began with Shaun of the Dead. A movie which lovingly pointed out all the ways zombie movies are silly. It was The Walking Dead that made it scary and thrilling for a wider audience. It did so because it wasn’t about the zombies, it was about the characters.

While nearly every zombie movie featured nameless characters who existed only to hang around until their guts were ripped out for the sheer awesomeness of it or, at best, served only as some prop in an abstract ham-fisted analogy for society, The Walking Dead gave us human beings with thoughts and feelings and personal experiences we could relate too, and then put them in a scenario where they might have their guts ripped out.

The Walking Dead made us fear for the safety of these characters, not because of jump scares or the cringe we feel when someone is getting eaten, but because we like these people and we’d miss them. They’re a family. We missed Hank when he was shot in Breaking Bad. We missed Burt when he passed in Mad Men. We didn’t even see it. One of the most painful deaths ever put on screen was Buffy’s mom, who died of natural causes.

We don’t watch The Walking Dead for the zombies. We watch it for the characters. We love the characters more than the walking dead. So it’s ironic that The Walking Dead would betray these characters.

Spoiler Alert. I’m talking about Glenn. The way his death was handled was a cynical betrayal of everything the show had made us feel for his character up to that point. I’ve never seen or heard of a character that loved given that poorly executed a death.

No, I’m not talking about the mere fact that he died. I’m not talking about the brutality of it either. You’re talking to a big Robb Stark fan here. Never forget. OG King in the North. I remember when the Red Wedding happened people saying they were done with Game of Thrones. But they weren’t. They came back. The ratings for GoT have gone up every season, through all the brutal deaths of beloved characters.

That was not the case after Glenn’s death.

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Here’s what happened: We meet Glenn as a teenager. A scrappy young kid who shows no fear. He’s among the most capable in the group even as a kid. He’s Rick’s right hand man. We watch him grow and become the moral center of the group after Dale, his quasi-mentor, before him. We watch him fall in love and scavenge for condoms. We watched Maggie and Glenn get married and conceive a child. While Daryl would grimace in the woods and Rick would talk to ghosts on the phone, it was Glenn who held it all together, effortlessly, because that’s who he was.

It should have been devastating when Glenn died. It should have been heartbreaking. There should have been tears. But scan some reaction videos on youtube. There are plenty of “Oh no”s and “Oh shit”s. But very few contain tears or the level of sadness we might expect. We’re not watching our friend get taken from us, we’re finding out the answer to a trivia question.

Glenn’s death was treated as a cliff hanger. His death was used to force us to tune into the first episode of season 7. We did. Congrats. But a lot of us had enough at that point. Why would I get invested in these characters if you’re just going to use their death as a hostage for ratings?

Let’s also not forget, we mourned Glenn already during the dumpster incident. Mere episodes before, the show made us think Glenn died. As hard as that was, they should have left him dead. You felt that hole in the heart you want to feel when a character you love is gone. To bring him back in some convoluted idiocy, only to kill him again in some convoluted idiocy, is to ask us to mourn the same character twice.

When I tuned in and found out Glenn was the one who got the bat, I didn’t feel hate for Negan, not as much as I should have, and I didn’t feel sad for Glenn, not as much as I should have, I felt like I found out the results to a test or the score to a game 6 months after the fact. It was just factual. It wasn’t emotional. Oh, now I know.

They turned what could have been one of the most devastating things ever put on TV, up there with Robb Stark and poor Jesse’s girlfriend, into a pathetic and transparent ploy to use your love of these characters to force you to come back next season.

What makes it even worse is they didn’t need to do that. They don’t need to make it a cliffhanger. Nobody wasn’t going to come back. Negan is a very popular character. His introduction could have taken the show up a notch. But the show got in its own way.

If you want to know why ratings are dipping for The Walking Dead, look no further than why they grew so high in the first place. It was a show that put the characters first and made you care about the characters. Then it took the most likable character, perhaps the most developed too along with Rick, and used his death in a cynical stunt more gross than the death itself.

What loyalty or respect do we owe a show that shows none to the audience or the characters in the show? What’s the point? Why am I caring about these characters and this show? Years of set up squandered.

The first episode of season 7 was supposed to provide a big answer. Instead, it left me with a big question. Why should I bother caring so much about these characters when the show clearly does not?

The takeaway here is you need to have great, deep characters and you have to treat them right, even if the world you’ve created for them to live in does not, because if you have great, deep characters the audience relates to, mistreating the characters is mistreating the audience. You can have brutal, unjust scenarios play out but treat those scenarios with the respect they deserve.

And if there’s a second takeaway, it’s for the love of God enough with cliffhangers. It’s the 21st century. We know shows aren’t episodic. We know we have to “tune in next week.” That’s how shows work now. We get it.

by Zack Goncz

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9 Comments

  1. Jo Mama says

    No, it’s losing viewers because they’re acting dumb. When characters who have survived this long make dumb choices, people will turn it off. Why stay in Alexandria? Just pack up and leave! If people are your chief asset you should take the family and go. Glenn and Abraham didn’t have to die, but hanging around Negan is just stupid.

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    • If you think bailing on the Megan storyline without a climax, just letting him win, so that Rick and the gang can feed pinecones to babies in the woods would improve ratings then you might want to check the math on that one. The Negan story is what’s holding the show together. If they just ran into the woods like cowards the bottom​ would fall out.

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    • That was not a good example you gave but the stupid choices are, besides a little Monday morning quarterbacking, the same thing the article is about. They make stupid choices sometimes to be artificially put in danger. This, using our love of the characters as a ratings ploy.

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  2. Jim L says

    Great article. Very refreshing to read something worthwhile with all the other garbage out there.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. walkingref says

    Let’s see – I’m not WD fanatic but here is why it’s taken a ratings dive – too many cast members. It used to be a pretty solid group and you watched people evolve. Now it’s like, “Wait who are these people ? What group of survivors is this guy from ?”. So it’s unfocused and they try to tell the stories of these people which slows it all down to a snail’s pace. And let’s talk about the horrible miscasting job of Negan. Jeffry Dean Morgan looks like a bean pole in a leather jacket. Way too skinny and looks and sounds more like someone’s drunk uncle than the ultimate bada$$. You could swing and miss and it would still knock him down. What a joke.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The ratings dive began before Negan was introduced. I don’t think people decide to watch a show based on the body type of the villain. It’s fair if that’s why you don’t like it but people are raving about Negan. They’re pretty into him as a villain. Most viewers don’t read the comic books so they don’t really care if Negan is chubby or not. His power comes from his charisma and ruthlessness, which Morgan pulls off, not his gut.

      It is unfocused but they’ve always had a revolving door of characters, not unlike GoT which has gone up in ratings every year and has the biggest cast in TV history, they jump all around the fictional planet. People liked the characters, that’s why all these fakeout deaths and cliffhangers have worn thin. I agree it’s gotten unfocused but I think it has always been unfocused, they’ve always had a handful of characters who get introduced just to die a few episodes later. The ratings went up, and now down, especially this season. The explanation cannot be the things they’ve always done. I agree that’s annoying as hell but something changed. It’s that they’ve stopped developing a lot of characters and the ones they do they don’t give satisfying payoffs for because they jerk you around. I still think they realized they had a money machine and they’re abusing what got them there, which is well developed characters being treated with respect.

      Back half of last season Rick fell and was surrounded and Michonne was like “Oh no.” Then Rick popped up. Like, wtf? Did anyone buy that Rick died? They might as well cut to the showrunners giving the middle finger to the audience while they counted money.

      It’s not that they’re bad storytellers as much as storytelling stopped being the focus and finding a money formula by stretching things out with fakeouts and cliffhangers and meandering became the priority. They want to be moneymakers, which is ironically losing them money. It just reeks of studio people realizing the goose lays golden eggs, pushing the story people out of the way, and they’re trying to factory farm those golden eggs. Now the golden goose is all sickly and laying debased garbage, balls of iron the producers try to paint gold. It doesn’t feel like there’s anyone who really gets the story and really cares, heart and soul, about telling it. Everyone’s clocking in, clocking out, and collecting their fat paychecks.

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  4. walkingfred says

    You are correct in that ratings started to dip prior to the arrival of Negan although there was pre-press about the fact that the character was inspired by Henry Rollins – put it this way I’m NOT a hardcore WD fan and even I knew that so the expectation for a real bada$$ was there. But the guy they brought in is like a more sinister version of Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite. It’s hard watching the show and seeing Negan talking bull and some of those big guys behind him not just punching him. Yes I know that the comic book has its trajectory which the show apparently seems to follow. But no Bro – Negan was pitched as being the ratings boost that the show needed but they miscast hugely. Jeff Kober would have been a better choice (he was in the show earlier). My sense is that they have slowed it all down while they figure out what to do. I mean “Rick” is boring as hell and I find myself rooting for the bad guys. Last Season’s highlight was its first episode. It was all down hill

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    • Lol, Henry Rollins. I didn’t know that. Now I’m going to see Henry Rollins every time he’s onscreen. But Negan is not written well, they need to explain his power better. But two guys can beat up one guy no matter how big the one guy is. The smallest guy could kill the biggest guy with a sharp object. It’s irrelevant how big Negan is. Napoleon didn’t need to beat people up to be an emperor. It’s his charisma and ruthlessness. Negan isn’t the issue, it’s that they’re just stretching things to milk the money machine and artificially creating drama by killing characters you don’t care about or faking/stretching out deaths of characters you do.

      The first episode of this season should have been the last episode of the previous season. You stretch a death out 6 months, people aren’t going to take kindly to your show anymore. In and of itself it was good, that story, but splitting the story up mid swing was just gross. Ep 1 might as well have started with the producers talking straight to camera and saying, “Haha you fuckers, we knew you’d be back! Give us your money and fuck yourself.” It was just such a transparent stunt. It was eventful, sure, but they cut any emotional impact or memorability in half by 1) Doing the fake death episodes before for the same character, and 2) Turning the death of a beloved character into a Ryan Seacrest, “Right after these messages…” stunt. People get annoyed about that Seacrest thing and it takes 5 minutes to find out who sang the best, stretching it 6 months to find out what character you love got a brutal death, it’s damn near unforgivable.

      Rick is the only character that does anything imo. I was annoyed when he started talking to ghosts and going crazy but it adds depth to him, clumsy or not. I know Daryl is everyone’s fave, and I like Daryl, but Daryl doesn’t really do much. Rick has the messiah complex, Rick keeps the group together, Rick is Jack from Lost, Tony Soprano, Jon Snow, he’s the central spoke. You’ve got the people who go ruthless, you’ve got the super nice people. Rick walks that fine line. If they dropped Rick the show would fall apart. I like Rick, I wish I liked him more, but Rick does everything. Rick is the show. And if Rick was the problem the show never would have taken off in the first place.

      A lot of the things you’re taking issue with loosely or indirectly come back to the central theme. They’re milking this and stretching it and using gimmicks to artificially create drama in order to get as much money out of this behemoth as they can. But they’ve done it for a couple seasons and people were getting wise to it, then the Glenn thing, splitting it up, just pulled the curtain back. The show started f*cking with the audience, and it started doing it more often and more brazenly and people are sick of it.

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  5. walkingfred says

    Yea it’s not that I don’t agree with much of what you’ve written except maybe for the Negan thing. I’m aware of the charisma factor and all that but I guess I just don’t feel it with Morgan. By the way see the link below that indicates that not only was Negan based on Rollins but that they were close to casting him. Had I not heard that in advance I probably wouldn’t have had an issue. On the other hand – Rollins in the link says that he felt that Morgan looked just liked the comic version of Negan so maybe I’m off base. I think that Morgan’s rendition of Negan reminds me of one of those guys who peaked as a person in high school but he still goes around talking trash – but if you just slapped him hard one time he would start crying.

    http://www.thewrap.com/walking-dead-how-close-was-henry-rollins-to-landing-negan-role/

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