Spoilers ahead for Season 7 of The Walking Dead!
It happens every year, right around this time. Fans of AMC’s The Walking Dead start to kick their anticipation into high gear as they count down the Sundays left until the hit series returns for a new season. Since 2010, Robert Kirkman’s horror-drama has drawn us in with engaging characters and storylines, and the occasional killer cliffhanger.
Like most other TV series, it operates on a seasonal basis — but it has taken a more creative approach to how it dishes out new content. Since its second season, AMC has split each The Walking Dead season into two parts. The first airs in the fall, and the second returns in the spring after an extended hiatus. This allows The Walking Dead creators to stir up excitement for both the midseason and end-of-season finales, as well as the premiere. But it also creates a longer than normal wait time for the series’ eager fans.
The Walking Dead isn’t the first, or only TV show to stretch out the downtime in between its seasons. Recently, HBO announced that the seventh season of Game of Thrones would premiere in the summer, rather than the spring of 2017. And ABC delayed the sixth season of Scandal until early 2017. But The Walking Dead does consistently keep fans hanging in the balance longer than many other series out there today. And given the rise in the popularity of binge-watching and on-demand entertainment, it begs the question as to whether AMC keeps us waiting too long for our Walking Dead fix.
Keeping fans engaged is a risky endeavor
To AMC’s credit, there’s little evidence that leaving fans without new episodes of The Walking Dead has led to a large lag in fan enthusiasm. In fact, the Season 6 finale drew in the series’ highest ratings of 2016. The network’s attempt to keep fans engaged in the off-season with the spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead hasn’t been a runaway success — in fact, it’s struggled to maintain steady ratings despite a lack of competition on the air. But despite some missteps, there’s no denying that the franchise is AMC’s strongest asset at the moment.
What’s more, the network has positioned the Season 7 premiere as a must-watch episode, which is almost certain to guarantee a strong showing when it airs on October 23. AMC is using its controversial cliffhanger to hook seasoned The Walking Dead veterans and new fans alike. The network has chosen to ignore the fact that fans expressed widespread frustration at being left in the dark. Instead, they’re marketing the entire season in a way that plays up the controversy by highlighting the new villain, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his deadly ash-handle; and hyping up the reveal of who he killed in the spring finale’s bloody final moments.
There’s just one problem with this strategy: Fans have waited so long to find out the answer to the Negan question, that many have grown frustrated with the way the series has strung them along. And some have even, seemingly gone out of their way to figure out the answer on their own.
Time isn’t always on AMC’s side
The internet has been a great resource for fans of The Walking Dead to stay engaged with the series, even when it’s not churning out new episodes. But it’s also become a hinderance for AMC, thanks to spoiler-happy fans that have tried to get to the bottom of the big Negan mystery. Websites like The Spoiling Dead have posted photos of The Walking Dead sets, and this has helped fans piece together a pretty plausible theory about which character — or characters — have already met their end.
While there’s no way to know for sure who really bit the dust until the Season 7 premiere, these active attempts to decode the series’ big reveals has definitely taken at least a little bit of the wind out of AMC’s sails — at least, for fans online. And while it’s good for fans to speculate in online communities, as it drums up enthusiasm, we can only go back and forth for so long before the excitement begins to die down.
Asking AMC to switch up The Walking Dead‘s air dates wouldn’t necessarily solve any of these problems, though. And unless the network chooses to order more episodes, there’s little they can do to keep fans from waiting — short of breaking its seasons up into even smaller chunks and airing them throughout the year.
As it sits today, there is something fun about the lead-up to each new season’s beginning after months of waiting. Whether the series can maintain that excitement in the future has more to do with storytelling than it does with its schedule.
The Walking Dead‘s seventh season premieres on AMC on October 23 at 9 p.m. EST.
Follow Katherine Webb on Twitter @prufrox.