AMC won’t let its stumbling zombies die.
The US cable-TV network is plotting ways to extend its popular-but-flagging hit series, The Walking Dead—now in its eighth season—for maybe another five decades. It’s hoping to emulate genre franchises like Doctor Who and Star Trek that have survived for decades on spinoffs and other “reincarnations.”
“We’ve studied the best… some have been around for an extraordinarily long time—30 years, 40 years, 50 years,” said AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan on his company’s earnings call last week. “We have the chance of a lot of life in this franchise.” AMC is looking beyond TV to social media, gaming, virtual reality, and merchandising to breathe new life into The Walking Dead franchise.
(The series already has two spinoffs on the cable channel—Fear the Walking Dead and the Chris Hardwick-hosted after-show Talking Dead.)
AMC isn’t the only network clinging to its aging crown jewels. HBO has five Game of Thrones spinoffs in the works for after the flagship series concludes. Netflix is developing spinoffs for its veteran drama House of Cards, which is entering its final season. (The production was stalled after star Kevin Spacey was fired, but is still expected to move forward.) Disney’s Lucasfilm is planning for the next 10 years of Star Wars, foregoing the decade-long break that followed earlier trilogies. And Universal is still carrying on the eight-film Harry Potter franchise with Fantastic Beasts, which is expected to have four sequels of its own.
Those networks and studios don’t have other shows that match the success of their leading franchises. AMC’s second-biggest series—which is, yup, Fear the Walking Dead—has about one-fifth of the viewership of The Walking Dead, based on the most recent seasons. The same is true for HBO’s next biggest shows, Westworld and Ballers, which don’t come close to Game of Thrones. And even with blockbusters like the live-action Disney Animation remakes and Marvel movies, Disney’s other titles aren’t on the same scale as Star Wars saga films, like The Force Awakens.
Netflix is one exception, here—the streaming service doesn’t release ratings, but third-party viewership metrics suggest that Stranger Things is bigger than House of Cards. This all comes at a time of intense nostalgia and long-delayed sequels, when older movies that have been reincarnated on the big screen like the Alien and Blade Runner films, and the string of 1980s action films making their way to broadcast TV, like Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys.
Yet in AMC’s case, continuing The Walking Dead for another half-century seems like wishful thinking. The show’s once-fiercely loyal fanbase is dropping like humans in a zombie apocalypse. The show still sells out conventions and screenings at concert halls, but millions of fewer viewers are tuning in each week to watch Rick & Co. wage an increasingly dull war.
Ratings for the current, eighth season of The Walking Dead have plummeted to levels not seen since season two. Nearly 9 million people turned into last week’s episode on the day it aired, compared to more than 17 million at the show’s peak in 2014. But The Walking Dead is still the most-watched series on basic cable, so AMC will cling to it until it’s dying breath. Just like HBO, and Disney, and Netflix.