After the premiere or finale of any major television show you’ve probably noticed that entertainment writers around the world can’t wait to publish the ratings numbers from the airing. 10 million viewers, record breaking time slots and five-shares galore! As an HBO fan you also may have noticed that numbers for your favorite premium shows such as Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire seem to pale in comparison to others in similar genres and time slots.
How does American Idol drop to record low ratings of 7.5 million viewers while Game of Thrones breaks records at 4.4m? While these numbers are a great way to determine whether interest is up for the same show in a previous year, it doesn’t speak to much else as these numbers are obviously incompatible when it comes to the Home Box Office.
But what’s so special about HBO? Why do other shows seem slaves to their numbers while HBO’s programs can seemingly thrive with comparatively paltry returns. The answers have to do with HBO’s business model as a premium cable network.
Appointment Television isn’t Dead (but it isn’t everything anymore)
It always amazes me to watch major voices in the entertainment world write articles about how Netflix, HBOGo and digtal-anywhere media consumption are the present/future while in the same publication they’ll rattle off traditional ratings numbers of our favorite shows as good measures of their worth. The two concepts don’t work together very well as traditional ratings numbers do not factor in digital viewers, who make up, at this point, an unknown portion of the audience. With the huge success of apps like HBOGo you truly lose all perspective when you do not include iTunes downloads, DVR recordings etc.
I, myself, the owner of an HBO fan blog and a Game of Thrones fanatic didn’t even watch the Game of Thrones season premiere “live” per-say. My wife and I decided to record the show and watch it thirty minutes later to better fit our schedule. Unfortunately we may or may not have been counted amongst the 4.4 million viewers who tuned into the premiere.
The ratings picture just isn’t complete when you fail to recognize the very real users and viewers catching the show on something other than a television with a Neilson box attached to it and a pencil and pen ready to log their viewing patterns by hand.
When will the industry adopt a more inclusive ratings system?
HBO is not a slave to Advertisers
Another reason HBO finds itself nearly exempt from the pressure of driving ratings ever higher is the fact that they are not beholden to advertisers. The primary function of ratings, in fact is to prove to advertisers how many eyeballs will be on their latest advertisement. This is a very real issue for most shows on television. But for HBO’s programs advertisers don’t exist and therefore do not need to be massaged every 30 days with new ratings numbers.
This allows HBO to keep shows that are under-performing for an extra season or two to allow them a chance to get their footing. Could you imagine if The Wire, after a slow second season, were on ABC or NBC? If the ratings had dipped half-way through the season we’d have all been wondering whether or not the show had a future. Not to mention the fact the show would have taken from advertisers uncomfortable airing their commercials in between gun fights and heroin deals.
The primary function of ratings (pleasing potential advertisers) is moot when it comes to HBO’s programming.
DVD & Blu-Ray Sales
Sure American Idol, The Bachelor and The Real Housewives of X pull in massive ratings each week. But how are those DVD/Blu-Ray and Digital sales coming for those shows? Some, dare I say most of HBO’s programming is of a quality nearing that of feature films. The production values and big names behind these projects make them very intriguing for those who enjoy building their media collections.
This is also something that HBO does quite well. Sure they get some flack for making fans wait almost an entire year for a new season to release on DVD or Blu-Ray but they seem to be able to maximize the hype extremely well. Game of Thrones breaks DVD sales records every year while True Blood and other series bring home the bacon each time as well.
I have a feeling HBO will be selling boxed sets of The Sopranos, The Wire and Sex and the City for a long, long time. Just another reason appointment ratings don’t matter too much for the network.
HBO is a Double-Premium Service
You probably already understand the folly of comparing network television ratings (ABC, NBC, CBS etc) to cable ratings (Comedy Central, Bravo, CNN etc). While the former are completely free to all the latter are paid-for and will therefore receive fewer viewers regardless of show quality.
But HBO and other premium cable networks take this one step further. Not only do you need a cable subscription you’ll also need to be a paying subscriber to the channel specifically. This makes the pool of potential viewers much smaller still with a more specific demographic of viewers (in terms of age, location, class etc).
In this sense HBO is a double-premium service requiring two paid actions from the viewer to ever be counted in that traditional ratings metric.
Ratings Are a Just One Way to Gauge Interest
Considering all of the above ratings do still have their pace. HBO itself touts ratings to show a series’ success and to build hype. But you’ll never truly be able to appreciate that 4.4m Game of Thrones season 3 premiere number if you’re comparing it to American Idol or even Mad Men.
So for HBO these traditional ratings are simply a way of saying “we’re doing better than we did last year/season/week”. But what I’d love to see is a system that takes into account HBO Go viewers, digital downloads, number of viewers per screen (I knew of a lot of Game of Thrones parties out there that counted as “1” viewer!) and yes I’d even consider factoring pirates into the equation. You’re trying to gauge interest, correct? Well what does the fact that Game of Thrones is the most pirated item on the internet tell you about interest? Often those same pirates throw down the $50 for the DVD or Blu-Ray later on. It seems disingenuous to even talk about ratings without factoring in at least some of these people as best we can.
There are also new social factors to consider. Game of Thrones was trending alongside the Easter Bunny and Final Four on its premiere date. It also trends on Twitter during each episode. Isn’t this a gauge of interest as well?
In the end we’ll probably keep reporting on these ratings numbers and we know for a fact that other major entertainment outlets will as well. But next time you see Game of Thrones or Girls compared to a similar series on network television you’ll know what’s really up.