Hot Take: The Walking Dead ratings slide is fake news

Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in episode 811 of The Walking Dead (2010). Photo: Gene Page/AMC
Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in episode 811 of The Walking Dead (2010). Photo: Gene Page/AMC /

There’s a lot of talk about The Walking Dead’s declining ratings. But if it’s still the top-watched show on Sundays, does the rating slide mean anything?

I’m starting to wonder if all of the talk about The Walking Dead’s sinking ratings is a certified example of the “fake news” clickbait phenomenon that we hear so much about these days. Here’s the problem: Media outlets consistently contradict themselves in these “sinking rating” pieces when they attempt to raise the alarm on the show’s ratings while also stating that it’s still the most watched show on Sunday nights. The real story would be if the ratings were slipping and The Walking Dead was no longer the most watched show on Sundays. This begs the question: As long as it still dominates Sunday nights, can you make a big deal about the ratings?

Since The Walking Dead returned for the second half of season 8 the show has shared the Sunday night spotlight with the Closing Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics and the 90th anniversary of the Oscars. In both cases, the show’s ratings have been strong despite the competition, and yet some outlets were pointing to the early numbers (not the final extended ratings that factor in DVR and online views) that show the ratings have slipped.

CBR reports that “The Lost and the Plunderers” had 6.8 million viewers, which is the lowest number of viewers since season 2’s “Better Angels.” The 2.9 Nielsen number is the lowest since season 1’s “Wildfire,” prompting the title “Walking Dead Ratings Fall to Lowest Since Season 1.” The title itself is misleading because the data only reflects the live and same day viewers and doesn’t factor in the DVR and online viewers that come in later.

We’re going to use the CBR ratings article in this little case study of fake news stories about ratings. The reason articles like this are incredibly misleading is that they want you to think The Walking Dead is falling apart. They cite numbers and compare the show now and ratings back in season 1. That’s all fine and good except for one little thing, and that’s the final two sentences of the article:

"“Of course, these figures always come with the caveat that even as it experiences a decline, The Walking Dead still earns ratings that would elate most network executives. It’s consistently the most-watched show on cable on Sunday nights.”"

If the show was tanking, it wouldn’t own Sunday nights the way it currently does. If the ratings tank and the show stops being the top show on Sundays, then we have a big story and a big problem for the show’s future.

The key viewership demographic is changing for The Walking Dead. Sure, the key demographic in the television industry is the 18-49 year olds, but when the show premiered in 2010 the current 18 year olds were 10, the current 49 year olds were 41 and I was still in my 20s. The TWD Family that has grown with the show doesn’t necessarily fit the demographic anymore. Ratings mean a lot, of course, but the viewers are evolving as much as the show is and that will continue as The Walking Dead moves along in its story.

Next: New Images from Fear the Walking Dead season 4

Until the The Walking Dead ratings fall and the show stops being a top show on Sunday nights, there’s really no reason to be alarmed.