Ratings roundup: What's it take for HBO to cancel a show?

Ratings roundup: What's it take for HBO to cancel a show?

In the first week of its third season—and its first airing on a Monday, without a cushy lead-in—HBO’s Bored To Death pulled in 240,000 viewers. In week two, it was up, slightly, to 250,000 viewers. But it wasn’t the least-viewed scripted show out there (if, indeed, there’s a comprehensive list of such things. The show following it, the Mike White and Laura Dern-created Enlightened, debuted with 210,000 viewers and sank to 190,000 viewers in week two.

It's entirely possible at least one of these shows—and perhaps both of them—will be renewed.

Welcome to the weird world of pay cable, a world that includes the networks HBO, Showtime, and Starz, as well as all of their affiliates and off-shoots (such as Cinemax). It’s a world where nothing is ever canceled, particularly on HBO. When In Treatment was given the axe earlier this year, the network brass talked about bringing back the psychotherapy drama in a different format (even though that will obviously never happen). When Big Love left the air, it was in agreement with the show’s producers, according to the network. Both parties agreed the show had run its course and was ready to wrap up (despite some intriguing hints to the contrary in exit interviews given by the cast). Heck, when the network got rid of the low-rated sex therapy show Tell Me You Love Me years ago, it got the show’s creator—Cynthia Mort—to say that the network had abandoned the second season it had already picked up because she couldn’t find a direction for the show to take going forward.

HBO doesn’t cancel things. It had every reason in the world to get rid of Hung at the end of its second season, as the series had attracted critical scorn and steadily slumping ratings. But the show came back, and now it’s airing to about half of its season two audience after Boardwalk Empire every week. The only vaguely equivalent network out there is Showtime, but that network ditched United States Of Tara after a third season that saw it unable to average even 500,000 viewers (a number the renewed Nurse Jackie managed to hit). HBO briefly canceled Life And Times Of Tim—wholly justifiably, since it remains one of the few programs on such a widely watched channel to ever draw the dreaded 0.0 rating—then renewed it at the last possible second for no apparent reason. Boardwalk Empire’s numbers are down, but it was picked up for a third season. How To Make It In America never set the world on fire, but it got a second season that’s currently airing. By and large, the plan at HBO seems to be this: The show only ends when the creators say it does.

This leads to some weird situations. Entourage ran eight seasons, even though it spent most of the last four or five repeating itself endlessly. Larry David will disappear for up to two years between Curb Your Enthusiasm seasons, then come back to make another 10 episodes. And even though the guys behind Flight Of The Conchords decided they didn’t have it in them to do a third season, would anyone be surprised if HBO announced a third season to air in 2015 tomorrow?

Obviously, this approach is best for serialized dramas. Though Big Love’s final two seasons were nowhere near its first three, it ended before its reputation could be permanently marred by running on for far too long. (We’re looking at you, Dexter.) The Wire and The Sopranos both went out at just the right time. When the time comes, Boardwalk Empire and Game Of Thrones will likely make graceful exits as well. (It does seem somewhat likely that HBO will keep pumping out new seasons of True Blood—if only for the constant revenue stream—in perpetuity.)

But, as any TV fan will tell you, it wasn’t always this way. Deadwood was unceremoniously canceled before its third season aired, caught up in a dispute among the network, the studio that produced it, and its creator. Reeling from high costs as the network’s initial ratings hits, Sex And The City, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos, came to a close, HBO also shut down Rome and Carnivale before either show’s story was complete (though Rome got time to rush a kind of conclusion). The network picked up a comedy called 12 Miles Of Bad Road, filmed six episodes, then decided it didn’t want it after all and yanked it from the schedule without any episodes ever airing. (Some TV critics who’ve seen the episodes say HBO made the right call in this case.) John From Cincinnati flopped hard and was pulled immediately following its one, ill-fated season.

Something’s changed in the last five years, however. HBO has always been more flush with cash than most networks, thanks to the subscription money it receives from cable companies and the healthy lead it maintains over Showtime and Starz. That’s what allows the network to mount massive productions like Game Of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire, shows that don’t make money back in traditional ways but do enhance the network brand. HBO increasingly realizes that the main draw for its customers is its original programming, and it’s been aggressive in recent years about promoting that original programming, even if it doesn’t seem particularly valuable on its own. In short: HBO renews shows in hopes that getting just the right mix of shows will keep its subscribers paying for HBO. The fact that the network’s subscriber base remains relatively steady in the throes of economic turmoil would suggest the mix is just right at this point, and to get rid of any piece of the puzzle might damage the others.

The network has also been far more aggressive about online streaming and DVD sales. Having realized too late what big sellers DVDs for Deadwood, Rome, and Carnivale were, the network now bases a substantial portion of its strategy on what will return good profits on DVD. (Back when The Pacific debuted to lackluster numbers, network brass said they were unconcerned, simply because it would be a perennial Father’s Day gift on DVD.) And while Boardwalk has yet to be released on DVD and it’s impossible to know for sure, it seems incredibly likely that the network is hoping to minimize conflict with its new streaming service, HBO Go.

HBO Go is enormously important to HBO’s strategy going forward for one simple reason: To watch HBO Go, you have to subscribe to HBO. So if you’re a Game Of Thrones fan but don’t watch True Blood, the network hopes you’ll stay subscribed to HBO to be able to watch HBO Go (and keep up with Game Of Thrones). While Bored To Death’s numbers on television are atrocious, the entire season is also being streamed early on HBO Go, presumably because the series is beloved by a slightly younger audience than much of the network’s other programming. If Bored does well online but continues to crater on TV, HBO may very well bring it back just to have that particular show available on HBO Go. (On the other hand, it will likely be expensive to reassemble the cast, now that Ted Danson’s on C.S.I., and the network may decide three seasons, all available on the site, will be enough.) Enlightened seems less likely to be back, since HBO sat on the show for quite a while and seemed to essentially cut it loose without much promotion. But if it unexpectedly gets awards attention, the network may renew it just for the prestige.

The point is this: Trying to decide whether HBO will or won’t renew a show is essentially impossible—harder than any other network. Unlike with shows on ABC or NBC, where ratings are all and determine ad rates, figuring out if HBO values a show requires reading obscure tea leaves and trying to figure out just how much overlap a particular show has with the network’s other shows. Hung and How To Make It may still be around because the network lacked guy-centric comedies as Entourage was leaving the air. Bored and Tim may be around because of how they play online and may be complete afterthoughts on TV. Treme gets to stick around with low ratings because it’s relatively cheap and having a David Simon show on the air enhances HBO’s buzz. Boardwalk Empire won eight Emmys. It could have sunk to viewership below 1 million and would still have come back. If you’re wondering if HBO will bring back your favorite show, then, the answer is almost always: probably.

Next time: The only network beating Univision in the 18-34-year-old demographic is Fox. Why doesn’t anybody care?