To hear social media tell it, the debut of HBO’s “Watchmen” could not have gone better, with viewers thrilled by the audacity of the storytelling and intrigued by the fact that the series was not what they anticipated prior to watching.
From within that very specific prestige TV bubble, it felt as though every person in the world — or every person who mattered — was watching the show as it aired; proof positive that watercooler watching did not die with “Game of Thrones” and that there was hope yet for the collective viewing experience.
And then the ratings were released.
It’s not that the numbers for “Watchmen” were bad. (They weren’t.) But it’s also not that the numbers were good. (They weren’t.) It’s that the numbers, like almost any ratings in the streaming era, were inscrutable.
According to HBO, 1.5 million people watched the premiere across all their available platforms on Sunday night. That seems good, for a premium cable outlet that deals in subscribers and not advertisers. Except the numbers for the iconic comic book adaptation were only a 20 percent bump over the Season 2 premiere of not-yet-a-household-name “Succession,” and down nearly 30 percent from the Season 2 premiere of “Westworld” in 2018, when the hit sci-fi Western nabbed 2.1 million viewers.
If that’s not confusing enough, consider that the “Watchmen” debut went up against a “Sunday Night Football” game featuring the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles that pulled in over 21 million pairs of eyes, as well as former ratings giant “The Walking Dead,” whose numbers are a shadow of what they once were, but still scored nearly 3.5 million viewers.
So what does it all mean? Absolutely nothing.
Rather, the ratings for “Watchmen” mean nothing at this juncture because it’s impossible to calculate an answer if you don’t have enough of the factors. At this point, discussing ratings feels a lot like trying to reverse engineer a math problem, we know that X is 1.5 million viewers, so instead of solving for it, we’re trying to figure out how we got here and if it matters.
The only people who could begin to answer this question are at HBO, and they haven’t shown any inclination yet as to showing their hand. The network was under no compulsion to release next-day numbers for the series, especially given the continued prevalence of time-shifted viewing. In a world where three-day and seven-day audience numbers offer a much better picture of what a program’s viewership body looks like, HBO would have been fine waiting before boasting about what is sure to be an even more robust audience.
But 1.5 million people leaves room for so many questions, particularly during a time where streaming outlets, specifically Netflix, are releasing viewership numbers touting 23 million accounts viewing Ava DuVernay’s four-part “When They See Us” limited series, but refusing to disclose what counts as a viewing, how much a person has to watch, or how it’s tabulating said views.
At this point, the waters are already muddy enough and the only way to win the game is to keep business to yourself and play the long game. HBO didn’t have to engage. But it did and how that will alter narratives around the perceived success or failure of “Watchmen” remains to be seen.
For more in-depth coverage on the inscrutable nature of television ratings, check out IndieWire’s television podcast “Millions of Screens,” where TV Awards Editor Libby Hill, TV Deputy Editor Ben Travers, and Creative Producer Leo Garcia dissect the brilliant premiere of “Watchmen,” plus look at Kirstin Dunst’s awards hopes for Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” as well as excitement for HBO’s “Mrs. Fletcher” and the return of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.”
“Millions of Screens” is available on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. You can subscribe here or via RSS. Share your feedback with the crew on Twitter or sound off in the comments. Review the show on iTunes and be sure to let us know if you’d like to hear the gang address specific issues in upcoming editions of “Millions of Screens.” Check out the rest of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.
This episode of “Millions of Screens” was produced by Leonardo Adrian Garcia.