Oh how the mighty have fallen... to become only mostly mighty. The Walking Dead, once television's biggest show by a few Atlanta country miles, is in a bit of a slump as of late. But don't start collecting canned goods for the show just yet; it's still one of TV's elite few and the envy of every network not named AMC.
However, the performance of the current Season 7 has to be a bit of a letdown for the network, as ratings have tumbled precipitously down to Season 3-level numbers, roughly between 10 and 11 million viewers. And given how the season started — with a series second-best total audience of 17.03 million (!!!) — something isn't working and the audience is bailing in droves.
Here's how Season 7 has performed so far in overnight ratings through seven episodes:
Season 7, Episode 1: 17.03 million viewers
Season 7, Episode 2: 12.46 million viewers
Season 7, Episode 3: 11.72 million viewers
Season 7, Episode 4: 11.40 million viewers
Season 7, Episode 5: 11.00 million viewers
Season 7, Episode 6: 10.40 million viewers
Season 7, Episode 7: 10.48 million viewers
See that? That's the sight of AMC smashing the panic button. The slight uptick from Episode 6 to Episode 7, the most recent episode aired, is a sign of hope (Episode 6 aired over a holiday weekend so it's numbers were bound to be down), but we're still looking at 40 percent of the premiere's audience that aren't making The Walking Dead appointment television. And true, the numbers look worse than they actually are thanks to the premiere's wacko numbers, which were partially inflated by one of the most annoying cliffhangers of all time, but the real stat to note here is that The Walking Dead hadn't been this far below 11 million viewers since 2012.
AMC wants to fix this. AMC needs to fix this. Losing The Walking Dead doesn't just mean losing The Walking Dead, it also means losing Talking Dead — which has had its own scary drop from 7.57 million viewers for this season's premiere to 3.77 million viewers for the most recent episode — and probably Fear the Walking Dead. Feed the Beast didn't work out (for anyone) so AMC's livelihood currently relies on The Walking Dead franchise.
So what can AMC do reverse the slide and bring The Walking Dead back to its juggernaut glory? We have some ideas!
(Note: I'm fully aware that the ratings will jump back up for the midseason finale, as they always do. But after next year's midseason premiere, it's likely The Walking Dead will find itself fighting for eyeballs again, just like it always does.)
1. Make stuff happen!
The biggest complaint about The Walking Dead I read about online is that it's getting too boring and the story doesn't move fast enough. One recent Reddit post asked why so much can happen in a 43-minute episode of The Americans, but an hour-plus episode of The Walking Dead feels so stale. The answer is pacing, and it's something that the show has struggled with ever since it went to the farm in Season 2. There's nothing wrong with slow TV when a show has something to say — Rectify is a fantastic example of a show that doesn't do much but says a lot — but The Walking Dead has a nasty habit of settling on lengthy episodes that can be summed up in five minutes.
The solution to this is simple, though financially improbable: Make stuff happen on a weekly basis (is that so much to ask?). Focus on the show's strengths, which involve action, horror and the genius of gore master Greg Nicotero. This will give us all what we want and keep us coming back for more, because let's face it, we tune in to The Walking Dead to see zombies heads explode, not to see Negan get a tour of Alexandria or follow Tara as she finds another new place that it similar to every other place we've seen.
The downside of this? It's an awfully spendy fix. Zombie guts aren't cheap.
2. Find a goal and target an end point
You want to jumpstart ratings again? How about give departed viewers a reason to come back? Too much of The Walking Dead is cyclical and predictable because there is no actual story beyond "stay alive, don't get eaten," and that's led to viewer apathy as they wonder what the point of watching the show is. Though not having an end is part of the franchise's shtick to be a never-ending zombie movie, it's really starting to hurt the TV series as the only real plot points involve who is going to die next rather than solid, relatable goals for characters to achieve. (OK, it's relatable to not want to be eaten alive, but we need more than that.)
Without something larger than the show's current M.O. of "stay alive," there's no way for viewers to think the show will do anything different from "find a safe place, meet a bad guy, lose safe place, kill bad guy, repeat." Is there a cure for zombie-ism out there? Does anyone have more family they can search for? Is part of the country re-civilized? Some dangling carrot — hell, I would take any standard McGuffin — would do wonders for the show's trajectory. The people who abandoned The Walking Dead want to come back to The Walking Dead, the show just needs to give them a reason to.
3. Bring back Shane! Or a Shane-type character
Shane's death in Season 2 was a huge loss for the show. Yeah, I know that's how it went down in the comics (more on that in a bit), but taking him out of the equation so early weakened the group dynamic (as it plays out for the audience) so much that the series has never recovered from it. Shane was Rick's best friend, then he boned his woman when he thought Rick was dead. It happens! And it happened to create fantastic tension within the group, something that is sorely lacking now.
So much of the palpable tension on The Walking Dead projects outward from Rick's group, usually onto some sadistic madman or a mass of undead. There have been small moments of in-group fighting, with characters like Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and — sorta — Pete Anderson (Corey Brill), but they pale in comparison to the juicy love-hate between Rick and Shane. When stories of rival groups and zombie threats stalled, Rick and Shane provided all the drama we needed. Remember "18 Miles Out"? That was the jam, and it was mostly Rick and Shane shoutin' "Imma tell you sumtin'" and punching each other's noses. But it worked.
Seasons 6 and 7 tried to do something similar with Spencer (Austin Nichols), but he's such a bad, one-note character and so underdeveloped that when he mentions how happy he'd be if Rick died it comes off as childish. Plus, Rick barely even acknowledges Spencer's existence, so it's a one-sided drama and that doesn't work on TV.
The Walking Dead needs to introduce a new character who is both deplorable and necessary for the group, creating a "can't live with him, can't live without him" feeling among the survivors. Shane was unstable, but he was also a get-s***-done guy. Spencer is just deplorable and doesn't offer anything. He could do one of his high-wire walking acts over a pit of zombies and no one would care. Give me another Shane, and there are plenty of overqualified young actors who would jump at the chance.
4. Go off script
The Walking Dead is based on Robert Kirkman's very successful comics, so it's understandable that the show would follow them. Sometimes even word for word. But here's a little secret: The comics aren't that well written, particularly for a TV adaptation.
By staying in the groove already made by the comics, the TV show doesn't feel organic. Spoilers are everywhere because things don't change much (how much better would the premiere have been if we didn't know Glenn was going to die?). Villains are sapped of their power because they've already shocked on the pages. We know too much of what's ahead.
Is it any wonder that Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), who was not in the comics but was added just for the show, is the show's best character by a longshot? He's still fresh, he doesn't feel like a comic-book character. And look what happened to Game of Thrones in Season 6. Once it went past the books, it had one of its best seasons because it was new to everyone. Ditch the comics and tell new stories that everyone can enjoy for the first time.
5. Shorten the seasons
I can't overestimate the impact of having shorter seasons for a TV show. Currently, The Walking Dead shoots 16 episodes per season — divided into two eight-episode halves — and even though the seasons are much shorter than the typical network 22-episode season (don't even get me started on those), they're still way too long.
The Walking Dead should follow the lead of HBO and FX dramas (or even AMC dramas before) and knock The Walking Dead down to 10-13 episodes a season. Limiting the hours tightens the story, meaning we don't have to spend a whole hour debating how much the group has changed or how this is life now. If pacing is The Walking Dead's biggest problem — which I'd argue it is — this would be the quickest and easiest way to fix that.
Of course, AMC would never do that because it's raking in the dough through commercials, and more episodes means more commercials means more money. It's the same reason The Walking Dead is approaching Sons of Anarchy levels of episode length with frequent "special" 90-minute installments. Adding 10 to 15 minutes of Negan poking around Alexandria adds 10 to 15 minutes of commercials (and it adds even more viewer fatigue). AMC has been criticized for abandoning the incredible storytelling it was once committed to (remember, this is the network that aired both Breaking Bad and Mad Men) in favor of making a buck. The Walking Dead is the biggest argument for that criticism.
6. Experiment more
I'm all for experimentation in The Walking Dead, particularly since the show has repeated a similar formula in recent seasons. The black-and-white flashbacks from the Season 6 premiere, the Governor-centric episodes from Season 4 and other bits of flair helped the show stay fresh. But The Walking Dead isn't doing it enough.
Standalone episodes can also help build the world and characters. A pair of episodes about Morgan (Lennie James) — Season 3's "Clear" and Season 5's "Here's Not Here" — still stand out as some of my favorite The Walking Deads ever. However, there needs to be caution used. The spate of five standalone episodes in a row this season killed any momentum the show had and has been a huge reason fans are moving on to other Sunday night diversions. The Walking Dead should cover a character or moment in one episode, and return back to the main narrative in the next. Or better yet, cover the same large narrative as it moves forward from different character perspectives, something Lost was great at. That develops character and keeps the plot moving.
How would you help The Walking Dead regain its ratings glory?
The Walking Dead ends the first half of its seventh season on Sunday at 9/8c on AMC.