The Walking Dead Takes A Big Swing – But Can It Maintain Ratings?


If you pay attention to the social conversation about television in general – and I’m guessing you do, since you’re currently reading about The Walking Dead – then it’s safe to say that this long-running episodic drama has crowded your view for the past six months. The season six finale of The Walking Dead must be among the most discussed and dissected episodes of TV since, well, Game Of Thrones and that whole Jon Snow thing.

It is hardly surprising, then, that we find the season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead drew a huge audience when it finally arrived on screen. Undoubtedly, it was the resolution to the ‘who did Negan beat to death?’ cliffhanger that 17 million viewers were seeking when they tuned in to the show that night.

This number delivered an impressive 8.4 rating in the 18-49 demographic, and an even more remarkable 8.7 rating in the 25-54 demographic. But, there is a case to be made that these numbers – while enviable in relation to most shows on TV – reveal that The Walking Dead may be approaching something of a tipping point in its popularity.

The concern emanates from the fact that – despite creating this giant, masterful cliffhanger – this season 7 premiere still didn’t reach the heights of the season 5 premiere, with its 17.3 million viewers. The Walking Dead fandom is among the most vocal in all of fandom – there are those that watch the show and love the comics, and those that watch the show with little to no knowledge of the comics, and enjoy it as a drama.

The triumph of the show is that it has been able to serve both groups. The TV series of The Walking Dead does depart from the narrative arc of the comic books – quite significantly in some areas – and it is this that seems to generate the most vehement response among audiences. The season 6 cliffhanger is a prime example of this. The violent incident that closed the episode and left viewers on the edge of their seats is indeed taken from the source material, and in the source material, Negan kills Glenn. Clearly, if the TV show followed the comic book resolution to that, it wouldn’t be much of a cliffhanger.

So, for the purpose of entertaining audiences, the show looked all set to depart from the source material, in order to deliver a surprise with the season 7 premiere. Now, aside from the fact that many viewers found it frustrating that the answer to their question was not immediately answered when the episode began, what they were eventually confronted with was two deaths – firstly Abraham, and then Glenn as a shock-twist.

Responses to this turn of events has been mixed – reflecting the brewing divisions among fans of the show. First and foremost, there is anger at the fact that the only Asian man in the group – Glenn – has been killed. But, many that love the comics (in which Glenn is killed) still appreciate that the gory brutality being depicted in increasing detail in the series is drawn from the source material they hold dear. Many that watch the show for the show that it is are becoming troubled by the ever-darkening direction it seems to be taking (although, really, the clue is in the title).

Thus far, those behind The Walking Dead seem to have successfully shuffled their way along the fine line between honouring the comic books, and entertaining a general audience. Will season 7 continue in that success, or will those ratings continue to slip? We’ll have to keep scanning the horizon to find out.