NOTE: I am no expert in television production. I am a fan with a little knowledge and a helluva lot of questions! Make no mistake, I am a fan of TWD.
HOW TWD WILL JUMP THE SHARK
Oh fandom, you are a cruel (and double bladed) mistress! Hey, we all know TWD is riding high on popularity and ratings, but a fair question to ask is: "For how long?"
I know, I know- execs have been oft-quoted as saying ten years or more, however there are many factors to consider the series lifespan. Let's take a genuine look at some of the factors that may influence it's longevity.
No TV show lasts forever. That's a proven fact. The reality is that TWD does, indeed, have a shelf life to an audience. Notice I said "to an audience" and not "to it's audience". There is a difference, ya know and I intend to explore the effect of TWD's fan-base on the show itself. More on that later.
It's a generally accepted rule of thumb that a TV series usually runs it's course over a span of roughly 7 seasons. The factors that determine this are numerous; budget, failing creativity, actors ambitions, audience retention, syndication possibilities, etc. It's not an absolute number, but 7 is the magic number where torque & horsepower are equal and there can be no improvement. That didn't stop "Bonanza", "M.A.S.H" or "The Simpson's", did it? However, TWD has a couple of things against it in regards to budget, audience retention and syndication possibilities. It's a whole different animal when compared to the other long-running series that were just mentioned.
Budget: It's been the source of some problems since season 1! This, mostly likely is the least possible reason for TWD to not make a long haul. However, the budgets have been cut every season (according to my research) to some degree. This could be simply allocation of budgetary necessities, depending upon the arc of the seasons and script requirements. I mean Season 1 was epic in scope with tons of CGI, while season 2 was more character oriented- season 3 seemed to have a slight mixture of both. Location shooting is costly, very costly. Time is money out on a location. If the writers are constrained by budget, then the stories aren't interesting enough which ceases to keep audiences tuned in and eventually you have walking dead with dried oatmeal & ketchup as make-up. (Lucio Fulci, anyone?)
Failing creativity is a more potent enemy to the series. I mean realistically, the series is a Romero movie with recurring characters. The premise is not new, nor are the predicaments the characters face. The zombie genre has been done, re-done, re-imagined, re-made, re-booted and basically used up- unless the creative team can keep things evolving, without totally re-tooling the premise of the zombies themselves in the TWD context- which is established. The characters are going to come and go as we have seen, so what is the focus of the series in the long run? The introduction of new characters just for fodder is too predictable (Star Trek's red shirts are a prime example) and the continual killing off of major characters will alienate the audience and severely limit creative possibilities. How many situations can each character be placed in that has not been already demonstrated with another character? How many variations can the writers creatively write before it becomes old-hat, just a different face? Character interactions are a major plus for the series, but the fan base is not ready for a soap opera that is based in the zombie apocalypse. The audience is polarized right now- all one has to do is look at social media sites and watch the feeds daily to get the feel of it. The core group are horror fans, specifically living dead sub-genre fans, and they like action and blood. The audience wants blood and that is it's next weakness: syndication possibilities.
If TWD was ever sold into syndication, exactly how would the episodes be edited for content; would that effect it's audience retention? Who wants to see a watered down version of something that the fans themselves already consider to be watered down? Syndication is an option (The Sopranos, anyone?), but look at the result of such cuts- a pale image of the original. This could broaden the fan-base, but the demographics would be radically different due to it's compromised content.
Audience retention could be a big factor as well. If Daryl Dixon dies, they have alienated a complete section of it's audience: women. If Rick is killed, who is the focus of the series? Audiences will only watch if there is something interesting to watch. Audiences are made of up individual people who, in turn, can be grouped into demographics, which means advertising sales. Can TWD creatively juggle the killing of main characters within the demographics to continually provide advertisers with their target audience? It's all about the numbers, folks.
The actors individual ambitions are also a factor here. Do you expect Andrew Lincoln to really want to play Rick Grimes for 20 years? Hell no! There's other things he wants to do and that will play a part in the series longevity as well. The same goes for every series regular on the show. No matter what we, the audience wants, it's ultimately up to the individual actor (and the money being offered) to decide whether or not he/she wishes to continue working on a series portraying the same character. If there's character development, an actor will generally stay; but how in the hell can you develop characters in the long run in the TWD premise? It's not possible, they may be around for a while, but they can't stay forever.
All of this leads back to two things: budget & fan-base. The fan base is becoming distinctly polarized.
I'm quite sure that the production of TWD will not remain in the Senoia, Georgia area for too much longer. They may continue to use Raleigh Studios there, but they also have studios in Hollywood, Playa Vista, Baton Rouge, etc. The Senoia areas are becoming flooded by TWD tourism that is a great thing for the local economy, but it's becoming a huge problem with private property owners who are being burglarized, stolen from, property damaged, etc by rabid fans. At every location, TWD crew have crowds watching them film, prying eyes in every directions, this can hamper location choices immensely. So, they look for new locations. The word on the street is after this season TWD production may move further east towards Savannah or Augusta. That's just rumor, who really knows what will happen?
The fan base is also responsible (not as a whole, but in a factionary component) for changes in the production itself. Raleigh Studios are having problems with trespassers & property damage, so up go the fences.(People are being arrested!) Now, location crews are becoming more & more strict regarding security. As before, property owners of prior locations are being violated in both material goods and property damages- so up go the new fences. This small faction is cutting the collective throats of the full fan base! The production, without willing local property owners, will have to go elsewhere to find suitable locations. How much do you think property owners are willing to put up with? The production as well, how much do you think they will put up with in regards to certain fan actions that will ultimately cost THEM money. They want to make it, not lose it.
Really, how long do you think this cyclical spiral will last before it implodes?
Here's the irony: just like the fictional universe it portrays- the tv show has to put up fences to keep out the hordes and keep on the move to survive.