America has once again spoken as to what it prefers from Sunday night TV, and instead of zombies this time, our great nation has loudly proclaimed that it would prefer more programming based on religious texts and ancient Norse sagas. The History Channel’s crazy strategy of airing a program based on the Old Testament on Sunday nights during the build-up to Passover and Easter appears to have paid off, at least for the first night, as The Bible debuted with 13.1 million total viewers during its initial airing, then tacked on an additional 1.7 million in a same-night broadcast. Even more impressive was how steady those numbers were across demographics, with 5.6 million viewers in the 25-54-year-old demographic, but also 5 million in the 18-49-year-old demographic. The channel’s previous Hatfields & McCoys was a ratings smash, but it also skewed very old, making it less enticing to advertisers. The Bible will have fewer concerns in that regard, outside of perhaps advertisers not wishing to back a program where angels are ninja warriors. (Then again, not wanting to back such a program would be madness!) One caveat: The failure to release 18-34-year-old numbers may indicate the program skewed younger than Hatfields, but, ultimately, not all that young. But we’ll have to wait a few days to see if the kids could be distracted from their GameBoys long enough to hear the word of the Lord.
Those numbers are enough to unseat The Walking Dead as the year’s most-viewed cable entertainment broadcast, and it’s hard to imagine something else coming along to unseat them, unless The Weather Channel has some sort of graphic depiction of Noah’s flood coming up that we don’t know about (or unless Showtime unleashes Bhagavad Gita fever, as it has threatened to do for so long). It’s also a reminder that the demographic we’ll refer to as “American Christians who care about getting things like The Bible trending on social media because they think it will prove to Hollywood that America longs for more Bible-based programming” can be harnessed, fitfully, into turning out for some sort of Bible-based entertainment, so long as it features the same level of violence, excitement, and ninja fighting as other pop culture. (See also: the relative box office figures for The Passion Of The Christ and The Nativity Story.) With these numbers, perhaps History will greenlight The Bible, season two, featuring some deeper cuts from the Bible’s greatest hits, like the story of Balaam’s ass, or that one time Elisha killed all those kids with some bears.
Looking at those numbers, the numbers for Vikings, History’s first scripted series, pale in comparison, but they were still impressively huge, with 6.2 million viewers watching the show in its first broadcast and an additional 2.1 million added on through later broadcasts. That total audience was also fairly uniform, with 3.4 million in the 18-49 demo and 3.8 in the 25-54 demo. Those paying attention may notice the initial broadcast of Vikings lost over half the viewers it gained from its lead-in, but the fact that its later broadcast was able to actually outdraw the later broadcast of The Bible is a fairly positive sign. Vikings is also targeting a far different audience than The Bible and has been cannily programmed to air in the time slot immediately after The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones (when that returns on March 31). Plus, week two of the show adds in a Christian character, in the form of a monk who’s made a slave, which might be an enticement to The Bible’s audience? Honestly, that’s the weakest argument we’ve ever made. Please disregard it.
Anyway, the solution for History if Vikings starts to slip seems clear: Just add in a new character who heals the sick, feeds thousands from a few loaves of bread, and never sins. It’s what the kids are into nowadays.