Update: The Walking Dead absolutely crushed its previous records averaging 10.9 million viewers for the 9pm season 3 premiere and a whopping ~5.8 adults 18-49 rating.
The Walking Dead returns Sunday night with its third season premiere. AMC's basic cable ratings juggernaut has had an impressive run, ending its second season with series highs in just about every category including viewers (8.991 mullion ) and adults 18-49 (a whopping 4.7 rating) while also setting basic cable highs for a scripted drama. The second season finale rated impressively higher than the season two premiere which drew 7.3 million viewers and a 3.8 adults 18-49 rating. The first season premiered to a 2.7 adults 18-49 rating. That's fantastic momentum heading into season three.
But AMC has been in a carriage dispute with Dish Networks resulting in AMC not being available to Dish subscribers. I originally figured the dispute would be resolved by the time Breaking Bad premiered in mid-July. That never happened. Then I figured the deal had to get worked out before The Walking Dead premiered in October. Barring an eleventh hour deal -- which is typically what happens in such carriage disputes, -- AMC is going to lack the benefit of Dish Network.
Since the two parties are now months into the standoff, I'm not as optimistic as I'd normally be that something will get resolved before tomorrow night. AMC's position boils down to "you must pay us for our quality content" and Dish's position is "sorry, but we're not interested in paying that much for a few shows critics love but relative few watch and one show that LOTS of people watch but will only have 16 episodes this year." One can reasonably conclude that Dish customers aren't bailing out in droves, though my guess is many Dish customers who watch The Walking Dead won't even be aware of the dispute until they try to watch on Sunday night.
For its part AMC is offering Dish customers a live online stream of the season 3 premiere of The Walking Dead.
How Much Does Dish Matter?
I've seen a variety of reports claiming all sorts of numbers ranging from 14 million people to 20 million homes will be affected. From a ratings perspective all that really matters is what Nielsen says and how it models its panel. As of August, Nielsen had dropped its coverage estimates for AMC by 12 million households (homes, not people) once it went dark on Dish Network -- from 96.7 million households to 84.7 million. That's 10.5% of all TV households according to Nielsen and AMC's coverage percentage accordingly dropped from 84.3% of homes with televisions to 73.8%.
Ratings wonks will correctly note that despite the Dish squabble Breaking Bad still premiered to record highs - it's true, it did, and that was good news for AMC. But that record high was 2.93 million viewers. It's fair to assume Breaking Bad numbers might have been at least a little bit higher with Dish, but it's also fair to assume that regardless, there's nearly 3 times as much interest in The Walking Dead so from a ratings perspective it will miss those 12 million homes quite a bit more than Breaking Bad did.
Just to cut "who cares?" comment guy off at the pass, the only people who care are people who like speculating about ratings! In terms of what any of this actually means to The Walking Dead and renewal, it is indeed a "who cares?" situation. The Walking Dead is of course going to do great regardless. It might not set new series highs, but let's face it- everyone (us too!) raves about Sons of Anarchy beating the broadcast networks at 10pm on Tuesdays with a 2.3 adults 18-49 rating.
Dish or no Dish it's a safe bet that The Walking Dead will outperform Sons of Anarchy by a healthy margin, though I wish there was a show about a rogue band of zombie bikers in development! I'd be very interested in those ratings and it would be a lot of fun to see all of the "NO!!! ZOMBIES AREN'T CAPABLE OF RIDING MOTORCYCLES!" comments as if there were some scientific factual basis for what zombies can and cannot do!