Despite cold temperatures up north, “Fargo” got off to a hot start in the ratings with last night’s (mini)series premiere grabbing more than 4 million viewers in three airings, and 2.65 million viewers for the first screening at 10pm. FX is pleased with the total number and will await week two’s ratings to see if the audience responds as favorably to the pilot as critics.
But was it the positive reviews, the star cast, or the existing property that drove people to give “Fargo” a glance Tuesday night? Certainly the reviews had to help quell any skepticism related to the project, and the presence of Billy Bob Thornton and fanboy favorite Martin Freeman (Watson! Bilbo!) couldn’t have hurt either. Yet “Fargo” the miniseries wouldn’t exist without “Fargo” the movie, and it’s safe to say FX may not have moved forward with such enthusiasm had the show been lacking the existing property preceding it. So just how much did the 1996 film help drive viewers to the show? Let’s take a look at the numbers to find out.
Disregarding the vast differences between film in the mid ’90s and television today, the two “Fargo’s” compare fairly well. “Fargo” premiered at 36 theaters in March 1996 to a healthy $730,265, or an average of $20,285 per theater. Including a two week run during Oscar season in 1997, the Coens’ sixth feature film went on to gross just north of $24 million. That’s roughly $46.4 million, when adjusted for inflation, off a $10.5 million budget (also adjusted). In comparison, Oscar winners “The Artist” (which, granted, took home more trophies than “Fargo” including Best Picture) made about $47 million with inflation and “Philomena” racked up $37.5 million this past year off a reported $12 million budget.
Financially, none of these films are incredible triumphs. They are, though, solid performers with enough profit to merit a success story — even if “Fargo” will most likely remain the favorite among film fans, mainly for the Coens’ involvement. The same can be said for the miniseries. They’re good numbers, but not even the best on FX. 2.65 million people tuned in for the 10pm airing of “The Crocodile’s Dilemma,” the first episode of the “Fargo miniseries.” That’s a slightly smaller number than the 3.04 million who watched “The Bridge” in the same slot in July 2013 and also less than the 3.22 million who watched “The Americans” debut in January 2013.
“The Bridge” had a couple of hot actors (literally and figuratively) attached as well as an FX-friendly premise (Ethan Alter wisely pointed out today the network’s propensity for regional crime dramas), and the same can be said for “The Americans.” The only advantage “Fargo” had was its name recognition and that can hurt as much as it helps. Still, the numbers came out close to even in week one with much to be learned once week two rolls around.
Another advantage “Fargo” has from here on out is its status as a miniseries. Between the FX staple “American Horror Story” continuing to expand its audience season after season (“Coven” drew almost 6 million viewers to its season finale, the highest rated “American Horror Story” yet) and the non-miniseries miniseries “True Detective” making headlines this week as the most watched freshman series in HBO history, miniseries are drawing bigger and bigger numbers. They’re the hot ticket, and the appeal of “Fargo” has to be — at least in part — knowing it will end sooner rather than later. The draw low risk investments for high rewards — 10 hours of your life vs. 10 years — can’t be overlooked, and networks are starting to notice.
So tell us, dear readers: why did you watch “Fargo” last night?