The ratings are in. Shows that generate massive media buzz have flatlined well below the ratings of one show that media commentators and buzzmakers tend to ignore.
HBO’s Girls, which enjoys huge media buzz for featuring nudity and casual sex, saw its ratings fall upon its 2014 return.
Last night’s Season 2 premiere of Girls at 9 PM drew 866,000 viewers, a slight drop from the 872,000 viewers the HBO show drew for its series premiere on April 15 last year. Sunday’s premiere was also down from the series-high 1 million that watched the Season 1 finale on June 17. Over three plays last night — 9 PM, 10 PM and 11 PM — Girls had a total audience of 1.6 million, up 42% from the double showing of the series premiere. HBO was happy right away with Girls,rewarding the series with a 10-episode second-season pickup April 30 after only three airings. Sunday’s premiere came the same night the show’s creator and star Lena Dunham won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy Series and the show won Best TV Comedy.
So, HBO is “happy” airing a show that hardly anyone is watching, and that fewer are watching now than were watching a year ago.
E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians did a bit better than Girls. That show, which follows the lives of a vacuous and narcissistic family who are famous for being famous, still hauls in nearly 2 million viewers. But like Girls, its ratings are down. The Kardashians were bringing in about 3 million back in 2012. So about half of those who once kept up with the Kardashians, no longer do.
These two shows tend to generate far more favorable media stories, pictorials, commentary and noise than just about anything else on the TV landscape, even though both shows’ audiences are shrinking. They’re politically relevant, so the media tells us. The star of Girls, Lena Dunham, is busy telling people how to vote when she isn’t shedding her clothes for the cameras.
Year on year, while these two shows have declined in audience despite increasing media buzz around them, Duck Dynasty has built one of the largest audiences in all of TV. A&E’s cable show about the conservative, Christian Robertson family routinely gathers an audience of around 10 million viewers, and has beaten major broadcast network programming. Its 2013 Christmas special declined a bit to 8.9 million, yet still raked in an audience about 4 times the size of the Kardashians’ audience and about 10 times the size of Girls’ audience.
Duck Dynasty’s ratings put it up in a class with TV’s most popular network shows, The Big Bang Theory (18 million, as of September 2013) and The Crazy Ones, starring Robin Williams (15.6 million), and ahead of CBS’ popular Sherlock Holmes-inspired drama, Elementary (10.1 million). NBC’s Parks & Recreation, like Girls and Kardashians, tends to generate lots of media buzz, but its audience sticks at around 3.5 million, or less than half of Duck Dynasty’s.
One could look at all this and, at least in the case of Girls, call “apples and oranges” because it airs on a premium channel, but the fact is, Duck Dynasty has built an audience on a basic cable station without the benefit of media buzz and without a stream of endless stories about its cast. Game of Thrones, by the way, brings in about 5.4 million viewers on HBO and is growing year over year on the same network seeing Girls decline. Across all platforms, Thrones’ audience of about 13 million puts it is in the same class with Duck Dynasty and broadcast programs.
Duck has succeeded despite A&E’s own original purposes for the show. It succeeds even though its own network seems to be embarrassed and lining up a replacement. It has succeeded without enjoying any positive media buzz. Its success argues that the mainstream commentariat, buzzing away about anti-values shows like Girls and Kardashians and praising them for their “edginess,” are badly out of touch with a large number of Americans, and that there is a massive, untapped market for programming that respects families, celebrates success and pays tribute to traditional values.
Duck Dynasty’s success, along with Girls’ failure, also argues that the culture may not be as lost as it often seems.