Is The Walking Dead Broken Beyond Repair?

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Like a disoriented zombie, The Walking Dead has shambled right off a cliff.

Despite an intense franchise overhaul, The Walking Dead’s Season 9 premiere on Sunday night drew record low ratings—as in, the lowest viewership ever for a premiere among adults between the ages of 18 and 49, and 47 percent fewer total viewers than Season 8’s premiere last year. With fan favorites Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan both set to depart during the first half of the season, ratings do not seem bound to get better, beyond the inevitable brief spikes for each character’s exit. The Walking Dead and its spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, have been hemorrhaging viewers for years, but even the most conservative prognosticators can’t deny how dire this drop-off is.

Per Variety, The Walking Dead drew a 2.5 rating with audiences between 18 and 49 years old—a key demographic for advertisers. That is, indeed, the lowest the franchise has seen during a premiere since it first launched in 2010. The 2.5 score is also nearly a demo low for the series as a whole; The Walking Dead’s lowest-rated episode ever with young adults came aired Season 1, and notched a 2.4. On top of that, only 6.1 million total viewers tuned in Sunday night—47 percent fewer viewers than Season 8’s 11.4 million viewers last October. It’s not just The Walking Dead, of course; ratings have been declining for lots of long-running TV series, including reliable standbys like The Big Bang Theory and Grey’s Anatomy. But there’s no way a nearly 50 percent drop in viewership has AMC feeling anything but panic.

As with any Walking Dead ratings report, the same caveat applies: yes, the premiere was still cable’s most-watched show on Sunday night, with no close runners up. Still, if this season was supposed to help the series turn around its plummeting numbers, it’s off to a bad start.

What went wrong? Most critics agree that the show took a turn as it geared up to introduce Negan, a hugely popular Walking Dead comics villain who loomed over Season 6 like an ominous shadow—his entrance endlessly teased but not delivered until the season finale. Even the endlessly charming Jeffrey Dean Morgan couldn’t make the bad guy and his endless monologues tolerable. Then came an awful, manipulative cliffhanger: waiting an entire summer to learn which beloved character—or, as it turned out, characters—would die in the Season 7 premiere. The show’s also been plagued by a flood of new faces who steal focus from the characters we care about, tedious filler episodes, and aimless character development. All that, plus the natural decline any aging series faces, meant that week after week last year, The Walking Dead trended downward in Nielsen’s estimation; its Season 8 midseason premiere was the lowest rated in series history, and its finale—which drew only 7.9 million viewers—was the lowest since Season 1.

The irony to this decay is that Season 9 actually does hold promise for the show’s future. Characters that once seemed lost are starting to sound like themselves again; key relationships are being rediscovered; a fragile layer of nuance might even be blossoming. If the show continues on this track—and finds a satisfying way to bring Norman Reedus’s Darryl to the fore, as a replacement for Rick—perhaps it could win back some of the viewers who jumped ship. Either way, AMC seems bent on keeping this franchise alive no matter how bad the rating future looks. It’ll be up to Reedus and newly installed show-runner Angela Kang to see if they can keep anyone watching.

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