One of the greatest struggles facing any engaged television fan is when a beloved program struggles to not only gain the attention it deserves, but the attention it needs just to stay on the air. The list of prematurely canceled series is too long to even begin listing, and the anguish felt by millions of fans worldwide need not be revisited. After all, we’re not trying to mourn the loss of another title, but to save one.
“Togetherness” premiered on HBO January 11, 2015 to some pretty subpar ratings. Its premiere earned a .23 rating in the 18-49 demo and drew just over 427,000 viewers before ending its first season averaging a .17 rating and 370,000 loyal fans. For comparison purposes, the HBO Emmy juggernaut “Veep” averaged a .48 with 950,000 viewers — and those aren’t that great, either. Of HBO’s current comedy programs, “Veep” ranks a distant third behind “Silicon Valley” (1.8 million average viewers in Season 2) and “Ballers” (1.7 million for Season 1), while “Togetherness” is dead last behind the latest season of “Girls” (506,000 average through Season 5).
And things are not improving in Season 2. The premiere opened to a .15 rating and 430,000 viewers, but has dipped to .14 / 362,000 over its first three episodes. That’s below the average for Season 1, meaning “Togetherness” needs a jolt — a “thing” — to remain viable as more than a means for HBO to remain in Mark and Jay Duplass’ good graces. If we look at the other comedies on the network, each one has their own “thing” that makes them crucial to HBO’s success. “Silicon Valley” and “Ballers” are both ratings monsters, and the former is a formidable critics’ favorite with a couple of Golden Globes nods and a consistent presence at the Emmys. Yet “Veep” is the awards darling of the bunch — an area incredibly important to the gold-hungry network — earning Julia Louis-Dreyfus four Emmys herself as well as finally snagging the Oustanding Comedy Series trophy last year. “Girls” marked a cultural shift that spoke to a key demographic of viewers — both millennials and women — when it debuted in 2012. Lena Dunham — and her fans — are a group the network will want to hold onto as it continues to extend its reach in the coming years.
It’s in this idea that brings us back around to the fate of “Togetherness” and, more pointedly, what HBO needs to do in order to make the low-rated but well-respected series a key player in its lineup: Release every episode of Season 2, immediately, via HBO NOW.
So far, HBO has only made small movements toward making its year-old over-the-top streaming service a destination unto itself. There’s been a slight increase in overall HBO content, including specials, documentaries, miniseries and original series; a few of which have even been released early on HBO NOW, like Andy Samberg’s tennis mockumentary, “7 Days in Hell.” The network is even premiering every episode of “Animals.,” a Duplass brothers’ production, exclusively on the service… for 24 hours, one episode at a time, before it airs traditionally Friday nights on HBO.
But with more subscribers needed and new Netflix originals debuting every week, it’s time for the premium cable giant to embrace the future — and “Togetherness” is the perfect show to use as a first step. First and foremost, every episode has already been shot and edited. Critics got a peek at all eight well before the season even premiered, so production isn’t holding back an early release. Those eight episodes made for an ideal bingeing experience, as well. Clocking in at around four hours with momentum-building punctuation marks ending each half-hour segment, “Togetherness” Season 2 flows perfectly from one to the next. You want to keep watching when each episode ends, even more than is typical for similar high-caliber series. (For example, “Veep” is simply so great you never want it to stop, but “Togetherness” actually builds toward what’s next via its structure.)
Looking beyond the benefits for fans, there’s plenty of upside for HBO, as well. First and foremost, ratings shouldn’t be a concern as it’s hard to imagine the show would perform significantly worse than it is now, and the demographic enticed by bingeing isn’t likely the audience tuning in weekly. They’re the people who meant to binge it when it was over and forgot, people who weren’t hooked by sampling Season 1’s premiere or anyone scrolling through HBO NOW, looking for a new series to start. And here’s where the decision to release Season 2 in full really helps everyone: By doing so, it shows HBO NOW is willing to release series in their entirety, all at once. To potential subscribers, that’s a reason to subscribe right there. Even if they aren’t immediately hooked by the appeal of bingeing “Togetherness,” knowing more series could be released the way they want to watch them — in full — could entice subscribers to a service in need of them. “Togetherness” gets a boost from the publicity of its early release, and HBO NOW benefits in the long run from positive awareness from making it known HBO is willing to embrace the new world order.
Now, the potential fly in the ointment is precedent, but it is precedent based on unknown factors. HBO has never released a full season of a series early before, but its “Animals.” experiment seems to be off to a rocky start. As mentioned earlier, HBO is releasing each episode a day early on HBO NOW before airing it traditionally late Friday nights. Now, 11:30pm on Fridays isn’t exactly a booming timeslot, but “Animals.” is only pulling a .08 rating and just over 300,000 viewers on average (and that’s boosted by an anomalous Episode 2 boom which more than doubled its typical totals). Yet what’s most important is what we don’t know, and that’s how many people are watching online.
Something similar can be applied when examining the numbers for “Aquarius,” NBC’s first foray into all-at-once releasing starring Indiewire favorite cop, David Duchovny. What started off respectably, ratings-wise, gradually shifted in the wrong direction, as the end-of-May premiere drew more than 5.6 million viewers while the August 22 finale bottomed out with 1.1 million. Whether that was due to declining interest based on the show’s overall appeal or the fact that fans flocked to watch the entire season online, we may never know, but NBC’s renewal of the series has to be counted as a positive sign toward the network’s grand experiment.
But traditional ratings shouldn’t be a concern for HBO. Not now. Not after it’s been made fairly clear how many people will actually be watching “Togetherness” if it continues on a week-to-week schedule. While there’s been no known discussion about canceling “Togetherness,” it seems its only chance of returning is through HBO NOW support (similar to how “The Leftovers” survived Season 1 thanks to huge viewership via HBO GO). That means if the show is going to grow its audience, it’s going to do so online — just as HBO knows if it wants to grow, it too needs HBO NOW. So what it really comes down to is fairly simple: HBO has nothing to lose, and “Togetherness” fans could lose everything.
Save the series: Release the season.