What Does It Take to Convince Viewers to Watch Mad Men?

The numbers for the season two debut of Mad Men, beloved by critics, are encouraging but not quite as stellar as the initial rush of headlines would suggest.

The advance publicity was impressive, and AMC and the television press could not have done more to support this drama.  It has led me to wonder what it takes to convince viewers to devote screen time to this truly stunning show. 

"Live plus same day" data indicates that just over two million viewers tuned-in to watch the Mad Men season two debut, July 27 at 10p.

These numbers are certainly better than last year.  When Mad Men quietly launched last July (on a Thursday)  - and by "quietly" I mean without the benefit of publicity on this year’s scale - the series netted 1.6 million viewers.

So, Mad Men jumped about 25% in total viewers, comparing the season one and two premieres, 2007 vs. 2008.

Caveat: the season two debut numbers will probably move even higher once the "live+seven day" data is factored in.

According to Multichannel executive editor of content Kent Gibbons, Mad Men is highly DVR’ed.  "Turner Research’s analysis of summer [2007] shows (May 28 to Aug. 12) listed ‘DVR Worthy’ cable dramas," said Gibbons, "Turner ranked them by audience lift (ages 18 to 49) from a week’s worth of recorded views….Sci Fi’s Eureka topped that Turner list, at 48.9%. Other DVRed cable shows included AMC’s Mad Men (32.5%)…"

There is also a bright spot in yesterday’s immediate numbers - the adult 18-49 demo almost doubled.  Reports Tom Umstead here on Multichannel:  "The season debut episode also pulled in more viewers than the July 19, 2007 season one premiere episode in several key demos, including adults 25-54 (996,000 compared to 731,000) and adults 18-49 (955,000 versus 510,000.)"

Also, a plus for advertisers, per Mediabuyerplanner:  "32 percent of Mad Men’s target audience, adults 25-54, have household incomes over $100,000."

This year, television critics piled-in to cover the series.  I noted at least 100 reviews or feature stories listed on Google News leading up to the season two premiere, and the vast majority were effusive in their praise, including mine.

The series landed a NY Times Sunday Magazine cover.  AMC committed a breathtaking $25 million, the network’s biggest marketing push ever, to promotion - mostly in the form of network and cable ad buys, according to Brandweek.

"This is an event for us, and we’ve elevated our game," said Linda Schupack, AMC’s svp-marketing, in Brandweek, "We’re looking for a bigger audience, and we’re treating this like a movie opening."

AMC also ran 30-second spots in Landmark Theaters and organized stunts.  Shuttles running between Grand Central Station and Times Square in New York were outfitted with retro ‘chandeliers,’ snippets of dialogue on the walls, and life-size images of Mad Men’s conflicted ad exec. Don Draper.  Even Bloomingdales boasted Mad Men window displays.

And the Mad Men cast certainly seemed to work diligently (unlike some TNT and CBS talent who showed up at those networks’ TCA evening events, only to make themselves scarce).  Jon Hamm, who plays Draper, appeared on Letterman.  Hamm and his castmates trekked to the TCA panel, and stayed in the lobby afterwards to answer questions.  The beautifully attired cast attended the TCA Awards, and both the TCA Award pre-and-post receptions, tirelessly granting more interviews.

Mad Men, like HBO’s The Wire, is a viewing commitment.  (Mad Men is far more accessible, however.)  The show simmers, quietly building to the denouement.  As a viewer, you just never know when it’s going to burst.  And it almost never bursts in the way you expect it to. 

Mad Men’s up-hill battle to attract a larger audience has me wondering if viewers’ brains are so addled on the adrenaline rush - the special effects, car chases, rape, murder, melodrama -  that the viewing dopamine receptors now require ever-increasing stimulus to produce a viewing high. 

Have audiences become too numb to appreciate the sublime?Mad Men will loom large at the Emmys this year.  The series landed 16 - yes, 16! - Emmy noms.  The TCA - and let’s be honest, these are the people who truly pay attention to television - lavished three awards on the series two weeks ago.Crossing fingers here that more viewers will start to appreciate the nuances of Mad Men, and that the series will continue to build on the momentum of the season two premiere.Click here for my lengthy interview with Matt Weiner, posted last October.