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Over 3 million viewers sign up for HBO's 'The Pacific'

March 16, 2010 | 11:34 am

PACIFIC

About 3.1 million people signed up for the Sunday night premiere episode of HBO's expensive World War II epic, "The Pacific," according to Nielsen.

HBO, which spent around $200 million making the 10-part miniseries and millions more on hype, said the audience for the debut was 22% higher than the premiere of its last big miniseries, "John Adams." The pay cable channel has been heavily promoting the Steven Spielberg- and Tom Hanks-produced event and even took the unusual step of offering the first episode for free on DirecTV as well as on its own website and on Fancast. 

For those curious as to how "The Pacific" stacks up against "Band of Brothers," HBO's first big World War II miniseries from Spielberg and Hanks, which premiered in September 2001, comparisons are more difficult. That's because at that time Nielsen did not measure HBO's individual channels, but rather combined the audience for all of HBO's channels into one number.

Having said that, it seems safe to say that "Band of Brothers" had a bigger audience in its debut. HBO had 10 million viewers that night, and it seems hard to swallow that 7 million of them were actually watching old movies on HBO's various sister channels. 

However, the way people watch television has changed dramatically since 2001 and comparing ratings for individual episodes from these two eras may be stretch. Besides general media fragmentation and a growth of viewing options both on television and online, there was no HBO On Demand then, and the digital video recorder was still a dream. TV shows didn't show up on DVD until months after their premiere. In other words, there was more of a must-see approach to viewing television then.

Ratings for other HBO shows back this up. Last season, a typical episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" averaged 1.5 million viewers in its Sunday night run, but when on-demand and DVR and second runs are factored in, that number grew to almost 6 million. In the case of "True Blood," the Sunday night episodes average about 5 million viewers, but when all other viewing options are factored in, that number jumps to over 12 million. HBO insiders are betting on a similar trend for "The Pacific."

Of course, because HBO doesn't sell advertising, it always stresses that ratings are not its main consideration in determining the success of a program. Instead, HBO banks on maintaining its reputation for high-quality programming you can't get elsewhere, building its subscriber base and developing ancillary revenue streams. "Band of Brothers" sold about $250 million worth of DVDs. Still, one needs compelling programming to keep those revenue streams flowing.

HBO has already sold "Band of Brothers" abroad and will likely sell "The Pacific" here to a basic cable network after its run on the pay channel is done. The History Channel bought "Band of Brothers," and it scored 4.6 million viewers when it made its debut there in 2004.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: A scene from HBO's "The Pacific." Credit: David James / HBO

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