By Ben Travers | Indiewire July 23, 2014 at 11:00AM
Love it or hate it, "The Leftovers" is a conversation starter for anyone with access to HBO or Tom Perrotta's novel. It's got the trippy type of story Damon Lindelof specializes in, the impeccable presentation of any premium cable drama, and the eyes of many TV fans willing to trudge through the doldrums of a fictional future without two percent of the world's population. The only thing it's missing: A Season 2 pickup from HBO. And that may be happening soon.
"The Leftovers" Ratings: From God-Awful to Almost Heavenly
HBO announced today the ratings for Sunday's episode of "The Leftovers," the series' fourth entry in as many weeks -- but the story wasn't the slight uptick in viewers for the 10pm airing. It's how many people have watched the first two episodes across platforms. When including all telecasts, HBO Go views, and VOD numbers, an average of eight million people have checked out the first two hours of Lindelof's new series. For comparison, "True Detective" was the most watched freshman series ever on HBO, and it averaged 11 million viewers by the end of its run.
That's a significant improvement in what was looking like an otherwise troublesome ratings board for "The Leftovers." Its first week scored 1.8 million viewers, with the second and third week dipping to 1.55 and 1.37 million, respectively. Episode 4 moved the needle in the right direction to 1.6 million, though -- could it be that people are finally catching on?
As The Hollywood Reporter points out in its ratings report, even the premiere episode's initial numbers are less than a quarter of the series' total average audience. It looks like VOD, HBO Go, and multiple airings are paying big dividends for a show in desperate need of some good news.
HBO's Renewal History
After all, we've already been waiting far longer than normal to hear renewal news for "The Leftovers"'s second season. HBO has made a habit of ordering its other dramas early on in their rookie seasons. Of their current programming, not one drama made it past its second episode without a Season 2 order from the pay cable giant: "The Newsroom," despite mixed reviews, was picked up after its second episode, while "Boardwalk Empire" and "Game of Thrones" were ordered up after their premieres.
Also telling is that HBO doesn't like to cancel its dramas. The last drama to be axed after only one season was Michael Mann's "Luck," and that was only after some on-set issues proved the show to be more trouble than it was worth (literally, considering the horses that died during shooting). "The Leftovers" also went through some production trouble -- enough to push its initial release off the prime real estate of premiering after "Game of Thrones" -- but it's unclear that will factor into the decision-making around its renewal, whether it was a scheduling issue or something more serious (like script problems).
The Allure of Lengthy Series
Another intriguing factor is the recent trend of networks ordering follow-up seasons of their new series very early on, in order to inspire confidence among viewers. Not only does a renewal prove to viewers how highly the network thinks of its show, but it also reassures them that their investment in it won't be short-term. They can ready themselves for at least two seasons worth of drama, while binge-viewers prepare for lengthy marathons whenever they so choose.
Starz has made a habit of ordering their seasons early (with "Power," "Da Vinci's Demons," and "Black Sails"), and Cinemax announced the renewal of Steven Soderbergh's "The Knick" at last week's TCA presentation -- nearly a month before the first episode airs. HBO even ordered two more seasons of "Game of Thrones" this April, though that move makes sense on multiple levels as the show is an extremely successful pre-existing property. NBC even saw a 25 percent uptick in ratings the day it announced its hot summer series "The Night Shift" would be getting a second season.
Meanwhile, "The Leftovers" in particular could benefit from such a move. Its central story is a mystery so vast people have already given up on trying to explain it, but the rest of the show features plenty of other questions in need of answers. Viewers need to know those issues will be resolved if they're going to agree not only to the time commitment, but the considerable emotional weight attached to HBO's latest drama.
With DVR and VOD Views, Should We Be Waiting Longer to Look at Ratings?
This makes today's across-platform ratings news more pertinent than ever. Eight million viewers seem significant enough to earn a second season pickup, and the numbers also speak to a point raised earlier this week by FX at one of its TCA panels. In an effort to more accurately convey the total viewership attached to a program, FX stated it will wait until Live+3 data comes in before issuing ratings releases for its shows. Despite (pretty solid) initial numbers for the premiere of "The Strain," FX didn't report ratings until three days after it usually would -- Nielsen ratings came in for Sunday's premiere on Tuesday, but FX waited for the Live+3 figures on Friday.
Doing so worked. "The Strain" jumped from 2.43 million viewers from its first night to 4.73 million with Live+3 factored in, a massive increase and a savvy move towards building better press for its show -- after all, many outlets won't report on ratings twice, instead choosing to go with the first numbers they're given.
So far, waiting on ratings numbers has only helped "The Leftovers." Here's hoping HBO's decision to delay renewing the show pays off -- and that they don't need to wait too much longer.