Ah, modern television. Where what looks like a hit may just be popular on Twitter and what reads like a dud might be the network’s most-watched series of all time. Few programs can dance at each end of the spectrum — representing both unprecedented success and deafening failure — but if anything could, it’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” Amazon Prime Video’s billion-dollar franchise grab wrapped its first season on Friday (October 14), but it would be a stretch the length of its title to say we understand the show better now than we did at launch.
Contradictions abound: Fans love it, except for the racist trolls who hate it. Critics are onboard, except for select writers from distinguished publications. It’s too much like the movies, only not as good, and a loyal adaptation of the “Appendices,” while marking an utter betrayal of Tolkien’s text. But setting subjective judgements aside, the most polarizing verdict circling Season 1 is simply whether or not it’s a success.
The Ratings Recap
By now, the arguments for and against should be familiar to TV fans. On premiere weekend, Amazon broke protocol and announced internal statistics for the first two episodes, and to absolutely no one’s surprise, the numbers were massive: 25 million viewers tuned in around the world for the first two episodes.
But as the weeks went on and more data came to the forefront, a murkier picture formed. For one, Amazon Prime has some 200 million subscribers. While the company doesn’t report how many are actively using Prime Video (as opposed to subscribing for the shipping discounts), even if all 200 million people are engaged with the streaming platform, 25 million is only 12.5 percent of the available viewership. Moreover, the figures reported by Amazon (and thus unverified) aren’t given any metrics. What constitutes a view? How many people stuck around for both episodes? Does the initial figure take into account repeat viewings from superfans (and casual viewers who fell asleep on Thursday night, only to catch up on Friday?)
Even when Nielsen chimed in, things remained fuzzy. Again, the numbers on their own look strong. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” was No. 1 with a bullet on the streaming charts. Over its first few weeks, the series is nearly matching full seasons of Netflix shows in total minutes viewed (despite only two, three, or four episodes being available). For those hung up on comparisons, “LOTR” topped “House of the Dragon” every week… but that’s where things get tricky. Nielsen’s streaming charts don’t measure linear viewing — people who watch “House of the Dragon” via cable or satellite, which is still a significant chunk of the series’ total audience — so odds are “The Rings of Power” is actually pulling less viewers than “HotD.” (HBO last reported “House of the Dragon” was averaging 29 million viewers per episode, and, in a head-turning stat, episodes are gaining 3 to 5 percent week over week.)
Moreover, “Lord of the Rings” appears to be struggling on social media. Parrot Analytics, which tracks audience demand through a variety of factors including social media engagement, gauges “The Rings of Power” is driving 30.6 times the average engagement. That’s strong enough to put it in the top 2.7 percent of programs on TV, but it’s still trailing “House of the Dragon” — which is driving 54 times the market average and ranks in the top 0.2 percent of TV shows. Worse still, “The Rings of Power” feels far less impactful on the culture. Every Sunday, “House of the Dragon” dominates social media — no matter who you follow, odds are a meme, joke, or link about the show is making its way into your feed. The same cannot be said about “The Rings of Power,” even by those who are actively looking to talk about the show. Granted, these kind of measurements are subjective, but if enough people share an experience, there’s at least a grain of truth to it.
Ben Rothstein / Prime Video
“OK, fine,” you say. “‘The Rings of Power’ isn’t as popular as ‘House of the Dragon’ — so what? It can still be a hit without being the biggest hit on TV.”
That’s true. Amid all the competition chatter, it’s always important to remember that success for one isn’t dependent on besting the other. “House of the Dragon” is just a bellwether — it’s surpassing projections, topping its era-defining predecessor, “Game of Thrones,” and generating the type of online traffic befitting a series that’s become appointment viewing. It’s clearly a hit. With “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” the question isn’t if it’s a hit; the question is whether it’s enough of a hit. While “TROP” is on pace to be Prime Video’s most-watched series to date, it’s not blowing past far cheaper investments. “House of the Dragon” just needed to prove there’s continued interest in George R.R. Martin’s franchise. “The Rings of Power” needs to prove it can operate as a TV show and justify its unprecedented price tag. ($450 million just to produce the first season vs. $200 million for “HotD”)
So… did Season 1 bear out both points? It’s hard to say. Like with most things in streaming, we may not know until Amazon makes decisive commitments — not just a renewal or two, but season extensions and/or spinoff series. What we can say is that the split isn’t exactly a mystery. What Amazon claims about the show (“The Rings of Power” is a massive hit) and what we can perceive about Season 1’s release (it’s not producing the kind of cultural buzz consistent with its size) aren’t contradictory points — not necessarily. There’s an explanation for the divergence, and it starts with understanding how Prime Video differs from other streamers.
Amazon Prime Video Is the CBS of Streaming
Audiences tend to see streaming services as the unconventional, even edgy, choice in television. They’re cheaper (independently, at least), they dominate awards shows, and kids have to explain to their parents how to use them. Prime Video, at first, ascribed to early ideas of what a streamer should be. “Transparent,” “Patriot,” and “Mozart in the Jungle” (among others), courted an engaged arthouse crowd, as do more recent originals like “Undone” and “The Underground Railroad.” But America’s most popular grocery store eventually shifted its primary focus for Prime Video. If Amazon is the Walmart of the internet (sorry Walmart+), that makes Prime Video the CBS of streaming.
Just look at the No. 1 program “The Rings of Power” is looking to unseat. “Reacher” is the best-performing Prime Video series of the last few years — yes, the Lee Child adaptation that sold itself as the taller version of those Tom Cruise movies. And do you know who bought in? Dads. Dads did. I have no data to back this up, except that dads hate when “important” details of their beloved books are altered for an adaptation, and thus love it when the author steps in to correct those mistakes. “Reacher: Tall Edition” (not to be confused with “Jack Reacher: Good Movie!”) racked up 5.8 billion minutes of viewing over six weeks, according to Nielsen, all from just eight hourlong episodes.
And it’s not the only dad show to drive viewership. Prime Video’s longest-running series is “Bosch,” another adaptation of a popular book series, and another popular show for the service. “Bosch” even spawned a spinoff, “Bosch: Legacy” — which basically makes it the aspiration board for “Rings of Power.” While “Bosch” largely predated Nielsen measurements, notable hits of the past few years include “Hunters” (led by your dad’s favorite thespian, Al Pacino, doing what your dad loves to watch most: killing Nazis), “The Boys” (superheroes, violence, and, again, Nazis), and “The Wheel of Time.”
“The Wheel of Time” may not look like your typical dad show, but it absolutely fits Prime Video’s modern mold for success: It’s broadly appealing, easy to watch, and utterly familiar. As loyal book adaptations turned into police procedurals, “Reacher” and “Bosch” operate the same way. “The Boys” takes far more risks, but its dark sense of humor and superhero satire help connect with an audience who might be turned off by other elements.
Those same factors (along with an ever-expanding narrative universe) help Eric Kripke’s series drive online engagement. “The Wheel of Time” does, too, but all of these shows — “Reacher” and “Bosch” especially — suit a streamer that’s trying to attract a subscriber base who, in all likelihood, first signed up to save on shopping. These aren’t the cord-cutters who just want to watch what’s trending, or the HBO holdovers paying premium prices for premium quality. Just like CBS thrived by courting the widest possible base with borderline archaic shows like “Blue Bloods” and “NCIS,” Prime Video can succeed by bucking streaming expectations and serving up softballs to the masses. Such shows may not send people flocking to Twitter or TikTok to talk about what they just watched, but they get the job done — they get people to watch.
“The Rings of Power” Isn’t Designed to Drive Conversation
That’s at least one reason why “The Rings of Power” is said to be shattering viewing records while emitting little more than a low hum of cultural buzz. Another may simply be its Friday morning release strategy, which accommodates the “Lord of the Rings” simultaneous worldwide rollout, while making it difficult for everyone to watch at the same socially convenient time each week. (Staying up until 1 a.m. ET on a Friday isn’t as enticing as savoring the last bit of your weekend every Sunday night at 9.) Streaming execs may be happy if people watch at their leisure (so long as they watch), but divergent viewing habits do little to invite real-time conversations.
And yet, there’s at least one more explanation for “Lord of the Rings'” weird, divisive rollout: The story itself is to blame.
“The Rings of Power” delivered exactly what was expected of it. There are swift swordfights and massive battles. There’s a badass warrior elf and a surly, lovable dwarf. The craft work is impeccable, from costumes and props to awe-inspiring special effects. Everything about it is big. Much of it evokes nostalgia for the books and movies. “The Rings of Power,” as should be expected of the most expensive series ever made, dots every I and crosses all the Ts on Amazon’s ROI checklist.
But you get what you pay for, in more ways than one. Nostalgia is a double-edged sword, and “The Rings of Power” often ventured too far into hero worship. It emulated the structure and look of Peter Jackson’s films in a way that was bound to make the series suffer by comparison. No matter how glowing a reaction the show received, it could never match the memory of the movies. That’s just how nostalgia works — happy moments are preserved in amber, untouchable and unable to be topped. The enormous action sequence in Episode 6, “Udûn,” was breathtaking, but only on its own. When measured against the Battle of Helm’s Deep in “The Two Towers” — the standard for “Lord of the Rings” melees, if not all of film and TV — suddenly, the series’ accomplishment is less impressive.
Matt Grace/Prime Video
Setting aside the problems of a culture obsessed with the only best and the worst but nothing in between, “The Rings of Power’s” fixation on bigness often meant it neglected its own medium. Television storytelling is rooted in intimacy. People invite characters into their homes and build a relationship with them — week after week, month after month, year after year. Beyond humanity’s basic love for petty drama, it’s another reason shows like “House of the Dragon” stir up such strong feelings: We’ve grown attached to the interpersonal relationships at play. The Targaryens may not be our friends — like the friends on “Friends” — but you can’t help but pick favorites, choose sides, and get invested in their complicated little quests.
All the quests in “The Rings of Power” are big and pronounced, even when it comes to individuals. Take Arondir (played by Ismael Cruz Córdova). The elf stationed in the Southlands has two predominant character traits: He’s a skilled fighter, and he’s in love with Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi). His abilities with a bow and blade make him a classic action hero — easily admired for his bravery in the face of danger and efficiency at killing those ugly, ugly orcs — while his romance makes him immediately empathetic. Arondir and Bronwyn share a forbidden love, which works as a kind of shortcut to win over audience support, since who among us would root against true love? Both of these traits are essential to Arondir’s Season 1 arc, but there are no surprises lurking and no debate to be had. “The Rings of Power” characters are written to be effortlessly interpreted; ambiguity and discord aren’t part of the equation. (Even in the finale, when the major twists rest on two characters’ role reversals, one has to clarify who he really is by comically shouting, “I… am… GOOD!“)
At best, writing in such broad strokes can make for a pleasant, populist experience that instills audience loyalty out of ease (everyone has Prime!) and insistence (a heavy flood of marketing). At worst, “The Rings of Power” lacks episodic urgency and dynamic characters — the two things that typically create must-see TV.
So here we are again: at a crossroads. Did Season 1 succeed or fail? Is “The Rings of Power” TV’s next juggernaut or an impending flop? While it’s impossible choose one with any certainty (modern television, baby!), I’m betting on a quiet version of the former, in part because of one more key development.
Many thought Prime Video’s costly investment in streaming NFL games would mean a steep drop-off in viewership this season. After all, when Monday Night Football moved from ABC to ESPN, the ratings fell — and all audiences had to do then was change the channel. Shifting from traditional television to streaming requires a bigger leap, but Prime Video’s Thursday Night Football has been an indisputable success. The first game pulled in 13 million viewers (per Nielsen, which only measures views from TV sets) and upwards of 15 million across all devices (per Amazon). Compare that to the 15 million average audience when games aired on Fox and NFL Network in 2021, and it’s clear there’s an overlap between the broadcast audience and Prime Video subscribers.
That bodes well for “The Rings of Power,” along with the rest of Prime Video’s mass market programming. Plus, Season 2 could still expand its cultural footprint. Now that the full season is available, continued viewing should accrue a wider fanbase. Perhaps showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay will find ways to create more consistent tension from week to week. Maybe they’ll lean into contentious character dynamics, now that Season 1 has established the core identities.
But this is how the series was built, and if the audience is really there, that’s what matters to Amazon. Odds are, it will take strong data over online buzz every time — contradictions be damned.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” Season 1 is available on Amazon Prime Video. Season 2 has already been renewed.
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