Most hit TV shows head into their ninth season with an eye toward wrapping things up, if they're ever lucky enough to get that far at all. The Walking Dead is heading into its ninth year next month not to begin its sunset phase, but to begin a new era. Key cast members like star Andrew Lincoln are leaving, but as far as the show is concerned that's just a chance to push other stars to the forefront, and according to AMC's CEO we shouldn't expect the franchise as a whole to go away for a quite a long time.
Forbes reports that, while speaking at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference earlier this week, AMC exec Josh Sapan was asked about The Walking Dead's flagging ratings. The show is still putting up better numbers than pretty much any other scripted series on cable, but they're nowhere near where they once were (the show averaged nearly 8 million viewers last season, down from more than 14 million in Season 5), and fans have been wondering for some time if those diminishing returns could spell the end. Here's how Sapan responded:
"The Walking Dead is a universe... and we have a plan to manage over the next decade, plus. That plan is a careful plan to respect the world of the fans of that world."
This is, of course, a rather vague answer, but it does seem like an honest one. The Walking Dead has been a cash cow for AMC, a network whose other hit shows, like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, have always been critical and awards darlings but have never reached numbers like Robert Kirkman's zombies. Plus, while the original Walking Dead concept focused on Rick Grimes and his associates thanks to Kirkman's comic, there's nothing to say the franchise has to always be that.
You couldn't just one day make a Mad Men spinoff that's about cops for no apparent reason, but you could make another Walking Dead spinoff that's about a band who was on the road when the apocalypse hit, or a family who was traveling abroad, or a group of soldiers trying to navigate the perils of a world where the order of things has broken down.
That means that, with The Walking Dead entering its ninth year and Fear the Walking Dead gearing up for its fifth, we will probably be getting additional spinoff shows at some point. It's possible these shows will be set in the future of the apocalypse, rather than at the beginning, as Fear was when it started. It's also possible they'll attract major talent to drive the ratings, since Dead is a known brand at this point. Flagging ratings or not, AMC doesn't want to let the dead... well, die.
All that said, can this brand really continue for another decade? Yes, there's a virtually unlimited number of character and location combinations to explore, but it still all circles back to zombies in the end. With Fear entering Season 5 (a length a lot of genre cable dramas never reach) and the main series coming up on a decade all by itself, can a third show sustain the brand if these two begin to fade out even more? Would you keep watching zombie shows for another 10 years?
It might be a pointless debate until AMC shows us its Walking Dead cards and announces the future of the franchise. In the meantime, it's all about promoting the ninth season of The Walking Dead, which AMC is now billing as "Rick Grimes' Final Episodes" to wring maximum emotional impact out of Lincoln's impending departure. The network dropped a new 30-second spot for the upcoming season yesterday, featuring the ominous voice of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) promising Rick that his perceived safety and prosperity is all an illusion, and that the world is still crumbling. Check it out:
The Walking Dead returns October 7 on AMC.