Over the last few seasons, The Walking Dead has lost quite a few viewers and, unfortunately for AMC, that trend has continued. The network saw a massive ratings drop for the recent season 9 premiere, with the series down nearly half of its viewers when compared to the season 8 premiere last year. While that figure is certainly not what the network had hoped for, is there an explanation for the terribly steep decline in ratings?

The Walking Dead season 9 premiere saw a total of 6.1 million viewers, with 3.2 million of those viewers in the key 18 to 49 demographic. By comparison, the season 8 premiere brought in 6.5 million viewers in that demographic alone. Overall, that 6.1 million number is the smallest the show has had since the first season and it's a truly tremendous drop from the show's all-time high, which came during season 5 and saw more than 17 million viewers when the show cemented itself as a true pop culture phenomenon. But the past couple of seasons have been a bit slow and unsatisfying for many viewers tastes, which has led to the downward trend.

But the season 9 premiere numbers may be just a bit misleading. AMC released the episode a full 24 hours early on it's AMC Premiere service. While the network didn't release precise numbers, that decision drove the single highest day of new sign-ups for the service since its inception. So quite a few of the show's most eager fans had seen the latest episode of The Walking Dead before it aired. No doubt, that contributed, at least in part, to the decline in live ratings.

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Whether or not that's enough to justify a 47 percent drop in total viewership is another question entirely, but The Walking Dead remains the top show on cable in the 18 to 49 demographic and trails only NBC's This Is Us in terms of entertainment shows on TV overall. While AMC surely needs to be concerned about the downward trend, by nearly all measures, they still have a hugely successful show on their hands. The network has plans to continue The Walking Dead universe for another decade and in order to justify those lofty plans, they're going to need to, at the very least, slow the rate of decline in viewership.

What is particularly surprising about this drop is the fact that Andrew Lincoln will be leaving the show as Rick Grimes during this season. Lauren Cohan is also set to leave as Maggie as well, which seemed to grab the attention of fans. But that may not be enough to bring back more casual viewers and, what's more, one has to wonder what will happen to these numbers once Rick is actually gone. It's going to be interesting to watch this unfold as the season rolls on. The Walking Dead season 9 continues on AMC Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.