The Walking Dead closes its epic, record-setting run on AMC on Sunday. The show’s extended universe will live on, but the flagship series — one of the biggest in cable history — will wrap up at 10:30 p.m. ET Sunday.
Going by recent Nielsen data, about 1.4 million people — save a possible series-ending bump in viewership — will tune into AMC Sunday to watch the last episode. That’s a far — like, a really far — cry from where the show was at its peak, as The Walking Dead’s traditional ratings numbers have fallen off steeply in its latter years. Some of that is natural erosion — few shows that have been on as long as TWD maintain their audience — and some has to do with the fact that millions of TV homes have dumped their cable subscriptions in the years since the show peaked.
Still, The Walking Dead was a ratings phenomenon that few cable series have ever equaled, and as the show bows out, it’s worth looking back.
When The Walking Dead premiered on Oct. 31, 2010, AMC had established itself as a destination for buzzed-about original series. For all the critical and awards acclaim its predecessors Mad Men and Breaking Bad had racked up in the three previous years, however, they were still pretty small shows in audience terms. Season four of Mad Men, which concluded two weeks before The Walking Dead premiered, averaged about 2.3 million viewers, while three seasons in, Breaking Bad had yet to break 2 million viewers for any episode.
The Walking Dead premiered to 5.35 million viewers, making it by far the biggest series debut AMC had seen to that point and one of the largest in cable history. The six-episode first season was fairly steady throughout its run, averaging 5.24 million viewers on the night it first aired.
Then it kept getting bigger: Season two grew by 32 percent to 6.91 million same-day viewers. Season three rose by almost 56 percent to 10.75 million; season four by 24 precent more to 13.33 million. Season five represented the show’s peak in ratings, as it averaged 14.38 million same-day viewers, an 8 percent improvement over the prior one. The season five premiere was The Walking Dead’s most watched episode ever, with 17.29 million tuning in on Oct. 12, 2014, and about 5 million more watching within the next seven days.
The show was also the greatest launchpad AMC ever had. The Walking Dead now stands fourth all time among cable series premieres in adults 18-49. The three shows ahead of it are a spinoff (Fear the Walking Dead) and two series — Better Call Saul and Into the Badlands — that debuted after Walking Dead episodes.
Seasons six and seven of The Walking Dead declined some, but the show was still a juggernaut, averaging 13.15 million and 11.35 million viewers for those two runs. In fact, beginning midway through season three, the series had a run of 75 consecutive episodes with more than 10 million same-day viewers, an unheard-of streak for a cable scripted series. That’s two episodes more than the entire run of Game of Thrones, for instance.
That span makes up less than half of The Walking Dead’s total episode count, which will be 177 after Sunday. Only a handful of scripted cable series — South Park and SpongeBob SquarePants among them — have banked more episodes. It was probably inevitable, then, that the show would decline, and it did beginning with season eight in 2017-18.
That season averaged 7.82 million same-day viewers (and about 11.7 million after a week of delayed viewing), down 30 percent from the previous year. The ninth season fell by 37 percent more and the 10th by about the same percentage again. The drawn-out final season, which has played out in three eight-episode batches over 15 months, has only topped 2 million same-day viewers once, for the Aug. 15, 2021, premiere.
Those declines have come in part because fewer people get AMC in their homes. At its peak in the mid-2010s, AMC was in some 94 million homes with cable and satellite service; at the same time, about 100 million TV homes had some sort of pay TV service.
The latter figure has fallen to between 66 million and 75 million, according to estimates of the pay TV market. That means AMC has, at best, a subscriber base of about 19 million fewer homes than it did when The Walking Dead was at its peak.
Delayed viewing for the show brings a 60 percent-70 percent bump over seven days, and streaming presumably adds a sizable number of people as well. The “presumably” is there because, as is often the case with streaming data, AMC is tight-lipped about how many people watch The Walking Dead via its AMC+ platform. AMC Networks has 11.1 million streaming subscribers across AMC+ and a suite of niche services like Shudder, AllBLK and Sundance Now.
If The Walking Dead is ending with a relative whimper — whether it’s 3 million or 5 million or however many cross-platform viewers — compared to its heyday, the show’s place in AMC and cable TV’s history is secure. Very few cable shows have ever reached the heights it did; only Paramount Network’s Yellowstone currently approaches the on-air numbers of peak Walking Dead. Considering the streaming-focused state of the business now, and a pullback of scripted shows on cable outlets, it’s likely even fewer shows will get to those highs in the future.