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In July at San Diego Comic-Con, the trailer for the 10th season of AMC's "The Walking Dead" premiered. The new season of the zombie apocalypse show will begin October 6, but judging from some of the negative fan reactions in recent years, one might wonder if the show can still attract enough viewers to justify renewing it.
"There wasn't one single episode or event or death that made me walk away, but rather a culmination of bad episodes, poor storytelling, repetitive narratives and an undertow that pulled us further and further away from what first brought us together," said writer Patrick Schmidt in a Fansided article titled, "Why I'm Breaking Up with 'The Walking Dead."
It wasn't always like this. The show premiered in 2010 and by season five, it was a ratings sensation, pulling in 17.3 million viewers, which made it the most-watched show in cable television history. It became a pop-culture touchstone and inspired a spin-off show, "Fear of the Walking Dead," as well as a themed cruise ship getaway called the "Walker-Stalker Cruise," with zombie-themed activities and meet-and-greets with the show's cast.
Sadly, dissatisfaction with the show began to build within the fan community and intensified during season eight, when large numbers of fans gave up on the show. In a piece called "Why People Stopped Watching 'The Walking Dead,'" Looper's A.J. Caulfield wrote what could have been the zombie saga's post mortem.
"Over halfway into its eighth season, 'The Walking Dead' has dipped to its lowest ratings since its freshman season — pulling in just 6.8 million viewers (down from the 11.44 million who tuned in to the season eight premiere) for episode 10," he wrote.
Season nine received better reviews than its predecessors, but it may have been too little, too late. According to Variety, the last episode of season nine, which aired on March 31, was the lowest-rated finale in the show's history.
"In the Nielsen Live+Same Day ratings, Sunday's finale averaged a 1.9 rating in adults 18-49 and 5 million viewers," Variety said. "[I]t is down approximately 44% in the key demo and 37% in total viewers compared to the Season 8 finale (3.4 rating, 7.9 million viewers)."
While all of this news would seem to indicate that "The Walking Dead" is now roundly unpopular, the eulogies have all been premature. Representatives for AMC would not comment for this article, but the 10th season is indeed on its way, which would seem to imply that the network believes the show still has an audience.
Beyond that, production began in July on a second, as-yet-untitled spin-off of the show and a standalone movie is also in the works. In other words, despite many fans' grousing, the franchise is doing just fine. So why do viewers keep watching a show that they say they don't like anymore?
According to Vassilis Dalakas, professor of marketing and chair of the Department of Marketing at California State University San Marcos, it's because of the "sunk cost" fallacy. Viewers feel they've made an investment in the show and they don't want to waste it, even if it means losing an hour of their lives each week to something that feels like a chore.
"It is hard to give up on it on season 10," he said. "Essentially, this would be like admitting they wasted the past nine years they had been watching this show.
Writer Erika Holmes, herself a fan of "The Walking Dead," attributed the show's ability to retain viewers to what she called "the science of storytelling.
"When we start a story, no matter how long or short it is, it creates an 'open loop' in our minds," she said. "That means our brains naturally want a conclusion. We crave closure. The only way to close the loop is to watch until the end, even if it means venting our frustrations on social media or at the water cooler the next day."
Andrew Selepak, media professor in the Department of Telecommunication at the University of Florida, agreed. He said that "The Walking Dead" is retaining enough viewers to remain viable because fans want to see which characters will make it to the final episode, even if that means watching a show that they say is offering diminishing returns.
"Rick Grimes is gone, Carl is dead, Glenn is dead," he said. "The only reason to keep watching is to see how our favorite character's storyline ends."
For now, that may be enough to keep viewers tuned in. It may even be enough to justify the expansion of the franchise. But Selepak said that if the overall quality of the program doesn't improve, viewers will want nothing more from the show than its ending.
"We can only watch our favorite characters wander around doing the same thing over and over before we even stop caring about that," he said. "At some point, we just want our favorite characters to ride off into the sunset and recreate the world."