Can AMC stop the slide?
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

The Walking Dead‘s ratings are like the show’s on-screen zombies: Gradually decaying season after season … but still totally miraculous for being so lifelike and formidable in the first place.

So that’s how we look at Sunday’s seventh season winter finale numbers: 7.9 million viewers and a 3.4 rating among adults 18-49. That’s the show’s lowest winter finale demo rating since back in 2011. And that’s bad news. And yet, it’s also a bigger rating than any scripted show on TV last week.

Can AMC stop the slide? Well, to answer that, it’s helpful to first know this: TV shows tend to follow one of three trajectories. The first is when the show’s debut episode is its highest rated and then its audience gradually (or not-so-gradually) fades — those are usually canceled within their first couple years. The second model is when a show premieres, gradually gathers a large audience, peaks, and then slowly erodes — that’s the standard arc of most hit shows (Fox’s Empire is a semi-recent example). And finally, sometimes a show’s audience will get larger with every season for its entire run, but this is extremely rare (AMC’s Breaking Bad and HBO’s Game of Thrones are two examples).

So what we’re dealing with on The Walking Dead is — as Eugene might say — a Scenario 2-type situation: There was a rise, a peak in season 5 (averaging a 7.4 rating), and then a fall. Fortunately for AMC, TWD peaked insanely high so there’s still a ways to drop before producers have to, say, kill off Daryl and Rick and move the production to Vancouver to save money.

So can a show that’s peaked and is declining ever really pull out of its slump? Sometimes a series will stage a bit of a comeback for a big episode, or even for a single season (the premiere of season 7 resolving the Negan circle-whacking cliffhanger spiked to the show’s second-biggest ratings ever). But such mini-reversals usually don’t alter the overall trend — once fans quit, it’s quite tough, though not impossible, to get them back.

For more on The Walking Dead, check out Dalton Ross’ finale coverage here, here, and here.

Look for The Walking Dead season 7 to return in February.

Episode Recaps

The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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