Tag Archives: ABC US

HBO keeps winning with Game of Thrones

Game-of-Thrones
Game of Thrones’ season five climax brought 8.1 million viewers to HBO

So many shows that appear in this column start strongly but then fade away, like books that people can’t be bothered finishing.

A clear exception to this is Game of Thrones, which has just come to the end of its fifth season. Packed with the usual array of murder, mayhem and fan-enraging reversals of fortune, the final episode of the latest run, Mother’s Mercy, brought a record-breaking 8.1 million viewers to HBO in the US (not including any laggards who will watch on a delayed basis).

This season is approximately one million up on season four, which itself was a massive hit. Only AMC’s The Walking Dead has achieved higher ratings on US cable.

Game of Thrones has also proved a big hit for Sky Atlantic in the UK, where the show has averaged 1.2 million across its 10-episode run. When time-shifted viewing is factored in, the figure is more like two million. These numbers are well ahead of season four, and more than fives times higher than the channel’s slot average.

But Game of Thrones’ success shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow a superb launch for Kudos-produced robot thriller Humans on Channel 4. An eight-part coproduction with AMC, the show achieved a record-breaking four million viewers, making it C4’s biggest ever original drama series launch. With an 18.3% share, the show more than doubled the channel’s 21.00 slot average.

Humans
Humans more than doubled Channel 4’s usual viewing figures in its slot

Humans’ strong ratings have been reinforced by generally positive reviews. The Guardian called the show “a clever, high energy thriller,” while Neil Midgley, writing for Forbes, said Humans “hasn’t yet reached Blade Runner’s standards of greatness. But its first episode offered a pretty good start.”

Slightly less enthused was The Telegraph, which concluded: “With seven episodes still to come, it’s hard to imagine working up strong feelings for these robots with feelings. As a dystopian sci-fi police thriller satirical family drama, Humans felt like it was suffering from conceptual overload and in need of a reboot.”

All that remains then is to see how the show holds up in episode two. While there is bound to be a drop-off as some of the audience pull out and others set their TVs to record the series, the degree of the decline will tell us a lot about the Humans’ future.

M. Night Shyamalan's Wayward Pines
M. Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines

One thing the series has in its favour is that it was scripted by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, whose staying power was proven with spy drama Spooks and its recent movie spin-off Spooks: The Greater Good.

Back in the US, one show that seems to be doing well enough to merit a renewal is Fox’s Wayward Pines. Directed by M Night Shyamalan and starring Matt Dillon, the show’s on- and off-screen talent meant it was always likely to get off to a good start. But five episodes into its first 10-episode season, it is holding up very well, with same-day ratings coming in around the four million mark.

Indeed, the general consensus is that episode five (The Truth) is the strongest so far, a fact that has boosted Wayward Pines’ ratings and got the fanbase buzzing. While some critics have complained that the set-up of the series has been too slow, the fact is the audience’s loyalty to the show is also evident through its strong catch-up ratings, which usually add a further three million or so viewers in the week after an episode’s launch.

With particular strength among 18-49s, it would be surprising if Wayward Pines didn’t earn a second season. The real question now is just how good can it become creatively.

Of course, measuring a show’s success has become much more complex in recent years, thanks to the number of different platforms on which people can view. While there’s still a temptation to judge a show on the size of its first-night ratings, executives are having to hold their fire until all of the data has trickled in.

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American Horror Story: Freak Show is FX’s most watched programme ever in overall viewing terms

There was a good case in point this week. US cable channel FX has just released figures that show the last season of its anthology series American Horror Story (AHS), entitled Freak Show, was FX’s most-watched programme ever when all viewing platforms are counted. Based on the latest tally of linear and non-linear viewership, ratings research firm Nielsen estimates that roughly 12.64 million viewers on average watched Freak Show. Not only does this surpass the previous season of AHS, it is also higher than the seventh and final season of Sons of Anarchy (11.69 million). Particularly impressive were the show’s VoD viewing figures. At 12% of the total, they were the highest percentage among any FX show to date.

Interestingly, AHS Freak Show finished in January – so it has taken FX half a year to make the above announcement. While the channel no doubt had an unofficial indication of the numbers a few months ago, it’s still a useful warning against snap judgements.

This isn’t to say that overnight ratings no longer have any value. But the real indicator of a show’s appeal is not just the size of its live audience, it is the ability to sustain that level over a number of weeks. As explained earlier in this column, shows that shed audience rapidly from episode one to two are usually in deep trouble. For the record, American Horror Story returns for season five in October and will have pop icon Lady Gaga among its new cast members.

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True Detective’s second season has met mixed critical reception

Finally, the second series of HBO’s True Detective franchise debuts this Sunday. This, of course, means it is too early to make snap judgements based on overnights. But it isn’t too early to make a few premature observations based on reviews.

For the most part, reviewers that have watched the show have displayed due respect to the writing talents of Nic Pizzolatto and a cast that includes Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch. But they are split over the merits of the show. In the pro camp are Deadline and The Telegraph, with the latter declaring “Pizzolatto has made a triumphant return.”

Less palatable for HBO is The Baltimore Sun’s pithy summary: “This season (Pizzolatto) seems content with borderline stereotypical depictions of emotionally maimed, out-of-control, angry cops that have unfortunately become a staple of TV drama.”

Now all we need is for the audience to have their say.

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Keeping its throne

Season five of fantasy phenomenon Game of Thrones has picked up where its previous runs left off, delivering massive ratings for US cable network HBO. Overnights for the first three episodes came in at eight million, 6.81 million and 6.71 million respectively.

Gameofthrones
Kit Harington as Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow

That slight week-on-week decline shouldn’t give too much cause for concern, because so much viewing of the show is now time-shifted, on-demand or via other platforms. To underline the point, HBO has just released data that shows a staggering 18.1 million viewers watched episode one in the first week after its launch (a period of time referred to as live+7). This figure, which includes linear showings, HBO Go, HBO Now and on-demand views, confirms the serious pulling power of the show – while also cautioning against hasty judgements about first day viewing.

Game of Thrones is also popular internationally, with the UK launch garnering similarly enormous ratings. Sky Atlantic, which airs the show one day after the US transmission on HBO, reported record overnight ratings of 1.57 million – up 29% on season four’s debut. As in the US, those figures are certain to increase once time-shifted and multi-platform viewing is factored in. There were also record ratings for Foxtel in Australia, where 242,000 tuned in to watch episode one at 11.00 local time. An additional 311,000 tuned in at 19.30, creating a record day-one audience of 553,000.

Game of Thrones’ ratings success is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is such a heavily pirated show. In the US, it holds the dubious honour of having been the most-pirated show for the past three years in succession. Problems with piracy have been exacerbated this year, with the first four episodes of season five having been leaked online ahead of the show’s official launch.

AD - The Bible
AD: The Bible Continues

The ratings story is less rosy for Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s 12-part series AD: The Bible Continues, which has seen its audience on US network NBC slide in consecutive weeks. After a robust opening of 9.7 million on Easter Sunday, the next three episodes have come in at 7.75 million, 6.36 million and 5.77 million respectively.

AD is a sequel to The Bible, a Burnett/Downey miniseries that aired on cable channel History US last year. Its underperformance is a surprise, given that The Bible averaged 11.4 million viewers per episode over its 10-episode run – making it the biggest US cable show of 2014.

AD’s performance has led some analysts to suggest that NBC will probably cancel the show (though a final decision on that will need to take into account time-shifted ratings and a couple more episodes of data). This would be a blow to Burnett and Downey, who told journalists at MipTV in Cannes that they would like AD to be the launch pad for a multi-series franchise that tells more stories about the early years of the Christian church. Possibly, in hindsight, they would have been better placing AD in the less ratings-obsessed world of cable.

The standout performer in the UK so far this year is BBC1’s Poldark. Based on books by Winston Graham (and also a remake of a classic 1970s series), the show is set in 1790s Cornwall, where former soldier Ross Poldark battles against vested interests to make a success of his family’s copper mine. Not an obvious ratings winner, it has been boosted by the brooding good looks and heroic demeanour of Aidan Turner, who plays Poldark. While Captain Poldark’s handsome face, enviable abs and moral rigour have led to some mockery, The Independent newspaper gets it about right when it calls the show “an addictive Sunday night treat.” Poldark may not be Wolf Hall, but it is a hugely entertaining show.

With consolidated ratings averaging around 7.5 million across an eight-episode run, Poldark has been recommissioned for another series, to be filmed in September. And there are reports that the BBC wants to tie Turner down to a long-term contract and build Poldark up as its answer to Downton Abbey. The programme also looks set to have a decent life internationally, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment licensing it to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Sweden. Confirmation of a second series will help ITVSGE with its further sales efforts.

Elsewhere, the international drama community has been keeping a close eye on the Nordic territories after a run of recent successes. The latest show to watch out for is Acquitted, a 10-part series from Miso Films for TV2 Norway. Acquitted follows the story of Aksel Borgen, who left his native town after being cleared of the murder of his high-school sweetheart. Twenty years later, he returns to save the place that once turned its back on him – but the past has not been forgotten.

Acquitted has rated well for TV2, with its first six episodes averaging 649,000 (55% up on the slot average). This week it also premiered on SVT in Sweden, where it achieved similarly strong ratings. With more than one million viewers (30.5% share), Acquitted ranks as of the most successful foreign dramas to have launched on SVT over the last five years. Miso Films co-founder Peter Bose says: “In an industry where we’re constantly hearing about viewers migrating to non-linear platforms, Acquitted has been quite an achievement on SVT.”

Ratings, of course, play a huge part in deciding whether to renew a show. So it’s no real surprise to see ABC US cancel Revenge after a couple of seasons of modest ratings. It seems, however, that the US can’t get enough of zombies. AMC’s The Walking Dead is as strong as ever, which explains the network’s decision to launch a spin-off called Fear the Walking Dead. The CW is also having some success with iZombie, which debuted in March this year. Now halfway through its first run of 13 episodes, the show is achieving healthy ratings in the 1.7-1.9 million mark. Aimed at a younger audience that The Walking Dead, it has received a positive critical response and is expected to return.

TheReturnedA bigger question, perhaps, is the future of A+E’s The Returned, which was eight episodes into a 10-episode run at time of writing. The Returned is a supernatural drama that explores what happens when the dead return to a small town and try to live normal lives, much to the shock and confusion of the living residents. Its significance is that it is based on a successful French series called Les Revenants (produced by Haut et Court for TF1). For those in the format sales business, it’s important that shows like The Returned do well, to avoid spreading fear among US commissioners that shows don’t transfer well into their market.

So far, ratings have not been especially encouraging, starting at 1.54 million but sliding to 0.82 million by episode eight. There are two possible explanations for this – one is that ABC has been airing a similar-concept series called Resurrection; the other is the view among some critics that the A+E show has not taken the French version forward. The Wrap calls it “a serviceable but mostly by-the-numbers remake of a brilliantly nuanced French series that didn’t need to be brought back to life in America a second time.”

A+E is not the kind of network that gives up on shows easily, however, so a cancellation at the end of season one would be surprising. Netflix will be watching developments with interest, having recently picked up the global rights to the A+E series.

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The main event

ABC came out top in the US freshman drama stakes last year thanks to a single showrunner and some clever marketing. Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment Group executive VP of drama development, explains how the network is ‘eventizing’ its schedule.

To have three shows on air on a major US broadcaster is rare. To have them all on simultaneously, filling primetime back to back on one night of the week, is unprecedented.

This was the accolade ABC handed showrunner Shonda Rhimes for its latest fall season, scheduling Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and freshman legal drama How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM) one after the other on Thursday nights at 20.00, 21.00 and 22.00 respectively.

Grey's Anatomy
Grey’s Anatomy

Grey’s, on its eleventh season, and Scandal, moving into its fourth, had already proven their credentials and so HTGAWM – starring Viola Davis as a maverick law professor who, together with her students, becomes embroiled in a murder plot – was a fairly solid bet. Creator Peter Nowalk was a Rhimes protégé who cut his teeth as a scribe on Grey’s and Scandal, but with ABC trailing in the network stakes it couldn’t count on pedigree alone.

“There’s no more exciting time than now to be in television, particularly in drama, because there are so many different places to explore that content,” says Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment Group’s executive VP of drama development, movies and miniseries.

“The flip side, as a broadcaster, is it’s an incredibly challenging time. It used to be the case that all we had to do was look over our shoulder at basic cable, then premium cable. But now there’s everything else – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon – the whole nine yards.

“For us, as an ad-supported broadcast network, it is still so much about that linear same-day rating. So the question is always how do we get people in their seats, how do we get them watching, how do we make it feel like a priority?”

The solution was #TGIT – Thank God It’s Thursday – a scheduling strategy and marketing campaign based on the pioneering TGIF comedy block ABC introduced on Fridays in 1989, brought up to date with a Twitter hashtag.

Rhimes’ significant social media following and use of it to engage with her own fans, as well as active encouragement of the cast to do the same, was a significant part of the equation.

“Shonda Rhimes was one of the people who early on was very good about connecting with the fans, relating to them, and giving them the feeling that they were getting to peak behind the curtain,” Dungey says.

“We’ve done a lot of research, particularly into Millennials and the way they consume TV and watch content, and usually they’re working two or more screens at the same time. The idea of live-tweeting, which is something Shonda started doing with the Scandal cast and has now spun over to both Grey’s and HTGAWM, is that they will be tweeting at the same time that the show is airing. It makes the audience feel like they’re in dialogue with the cast.”

The success of what Rhimes had been doing with Twitter for Scandal was a contributing factor in ABC’s decision to contrive #TGIT. “As we were investigating what Scandal’s impact had been on the social media scene over the past couple of seasons, we had a real feeling we would be able to make this night feel like an event of television that couldn’t be missed,” Dungey says. “And we were right.”

How To Get Away With Murder
How To Get Away With Murder

HTGAWM delivered ABC its greatest drama success story of the 2014 US fall season. Indeed, it helped the network win the primetime ratings battle against its rivals in the 18-49 demographic every Thursday night in November – the first time it’s achieved such a feat in the 23 years since Nielsen records began.

The debut episode on September 25 proved the biggest hit of the US freshman drama crop, with 14.3 million viewers and a 3.9 rating, adding a record six million viewers on DVR playback in the subsequent three days, lifting it to a 5.8 rating.

These numbers pushed ABC towards its best Thursday night in five years, and the first nine episodes that comprised the fall instalment concluded on November 20 with another winner – 9.8 million viewers and a 3.1 rating, a 0.2 lift on the prior episode.

Tweets regarding the three shows numbered 5.3 million during the fall – more than those relating to NBC, Fox and CBS programmes combined – Dungey claims.

“It’s amazing how people are invested in those programmes and want to watch them live because they want to discuss them with their friends and be part of the conversation,” Dungey says. “Shonda has a way of telling stories where she likes to ‘turn over cards’ really quickly and you don’t want to miss any of those cards being turned over.”

Such storytelling has clearly been a gift to ABC, and the Rhimes triumvirate provided the perfect vehicle for the network to try out a wider initiative designed to pull in viewers. “We came up with a little word we like to call ‘eventize,’” Dungey explains. “That’s our in-house coin for making our show feel like a priority, a destination, trying to encourage the audience to watch live and same day.”

#TGIF was all about ‘eventizing’ through branding and social media, but ABC employs a three-pronged approach to the idea.

“Eventizing with talent” is about finding a calibre of artist, writer or director who wouldn’t usually get involved in the broadcast space, Dungey says. For example, Viola Davis, whose movie credits include Traffic, Solaris and Doubt, would only agree to be part of HTGAWM if the season went on for no more than 15 episodes per year, rather than the 22 or more episodes a network would hope for from a successful title.

The series that will replace HTGAWM in March this year is American Crime, created by John Ridley, who penned 12 Years a Slave’s Oscar-winning screenplay. It’s his first work in television. An anthology “trial of the century show” in which one case unfolds over the course of one season, “it felt for him like he could take that concept and unspool it over a certain number of episodes.”

Ridley wrote and directed the pilot as well as three other episodes of ABC’s planned 11 instalments –and with such a hot name on board, it was possible to assemble a cast including Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton.

As well as increasingly employing the split-season model that has proven so successful in cable (ABC saved the last six episodes of HTGAWM for a January 29 return through to a two-hour finale on February 26), the network is doing shorter runs. It calls this “eventizing with concept.”

“What we’re doing here is sort of the same thing HBO has done with True Detective,” says Dungey, citing Nic Pizzolatto’s critically acclaimed eight-episode crime drama, the first season of which aired a year ago starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and had some of Hollywood’s biggest names clambering for leads in the second.

Secrets and Lies
Secrets and Lies

ABC is billing Secrets & Lies, its other new crime drama debuting in March, as a single-season, 10-episode show, throughout the course of which the crime will be solved. “The idea is to market it in such a way that you can’t miss a single episode because you want to be there for the big reveal,” says the ABC exec.

It’s an adaptation of an Australian series of the same name that comprised only six instalments but was “a little short” for the US network’s purposes.

“The other thing that enabled us to do, again like what HBO did with True Detective, was to get a cast who would not normally sign on to an American broadcast show because they don’t want to be tied down to the long contracts we usually ask of actors,” says Dungey, returning to the idea of eventizing talent.

Ryan Phillippe (Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, Damages) signed on to play the lead male role – a man accused of a killing a boy – and Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear, Natural Born Killers, Kalifornia) joined as the detective. “She did sign a long contract, so if the show succeeds we’ll be able to have her return and investigate a new case over 10 episodes for a following season,” Dungey says of Lewis.

Are such series set to become a more regular feature of the ABC schedule moving forwards? “It’s challenging because we’re so used to being on a 22-episode cycle and it is much more common in cable to have a shorter-run, close-ended type of show. But in terms of trying to lure the appropriate calibre of talent, we feel we have to be competitive in that way and a lot of the actors and actresses you really want to help drive your content will only sign on for 10 or 13,” Dungey explains.

While it’s a welcome development that so much movie talent is now prepared to work in TV, she concedes that the newer, more buzz-worthy distribution outlets are often where they wish to be seen. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ll be going through casting or calling an agent about an actor and they say, ‘No, they’re Netflix only.’”

Dungey says ABC’s calling card is that it is prepared to do many more shows – but surely its biggest calling card right now is Shonda Rhimes, who is clearly able to turn the cards more effectively than anyone.

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