Dying Is Easy, Programming Comedy Is Hard

The final weeks of 2013 and the first quarter of 2014 saw HBO and Showtime collectively order two new comedies, cancel two old comedies and renew five others. But those decisions weren’t based on the same logic that guides programmers at broadcast or ad-supported cable networks.

“We do look at ratings because we are interested in knowing how our audience is watching,” says Gary Levine, Showtime executive VP of original programming. “The good news for us is, it is an element. It is not the element.”

A look at the ratings reveals just how little impact those numbers appear to have on the pay cablers’ comedy programming decisions. Take House of Lies and Episodes. Both shows premiered their most recent seasons Jan. 12 on Showtime. Both were recently renewed—House of Lies in February, Episodes in December before its new season even premiered.

But in season-to-date ratings, House of Lies and Episodes are separated by a wide gulf. In gross viewers across cable, on-demand and digital platforms—the number that matters most to premium nets—House of Lies, which ended its season March 30 (see “Fifth Estater,” page 28), averaged 3 million viewers per week, on par with the most recent seasons of Showtime’s other two half-hours, Californication (2.9 million) and Nurse Jackie (3.1 million). Episodes, which ended its season March 16, is averaging 33% fewer viewers than House of Lies, at 2 million. In live-plussame- day ratings, which the premium networks express little use for, the difference is greater—Episodes averages 41% fewer viewers than House of Lies.

“For virtually all of our comedies, the audiences have grown year over year over year,” Levine says.

“We do look at that, but we look first and foremost at the quality of the show and if it is delivering on the promise that we bought into in the beginning.”

Delivery on artistic promise is less quantifiable than total number of viewers. HBO employed a similarly vague formula when looking at its comedy slate.

Since January, HBO has made life-ordeath calls on five series. Girls, easily the network’s most popular comedy in gross numbers, averaged 4.6 million viewers per week in its most recent season, which finished March 23. It was renewed in January, a no-brainer.

But the part that ratings played in the decisions on four other shows is not quite as evident. In gross ratings, Hello Ladies averaged 2.4 million, Family Tree 2.3 million, Getting On 2.3 million and Looking 2.1 million. In live-plus-same-day, Hello Ladies drew 463,000, Family Tree 541,000, Getting On 360,000 and Looking 384,000. Hello Ladies and Family Tree were canceled in January. Getting On and Looking were renewed a month later.

“I think both those shows had a lot of great critical response,” says Casey Bloys, executive VP of programming for HBO. “We look at is it connecting with people, is it getting people talking? Are there signs of passionate engagement? In the case of Looking and of Getting On, for sure, there were.”

And while the four shows may have been relatively far apart in live-plus-same-day ratings—with the bottom show, Getting On, averaging 33% fewer viewers than the top show, Family Tree—in gross numbers, the gaps are narrower. Getting On and Family Tree were even in gross audience. Looking, the lowest-rated show, averaged only 13 percent fewer viewers than Hello Ladies, the highest-rated show.

The gross numbers matter more because neither HBO nor Showtime has to sell a C3 rating to advertisers. As pay subscription services, they can afford to be platform-agnostic. They can also afford to be patient.

“We’ve heard the mantra that it’s not about the ratings,” says Will Scheffer, cocreator of Getting On. “I think that it’s partly about the ratings, but more about the cultural branding that HBO is looking at. They like ratings successes. But a show like ours wasn’t created to bring about an enormous ratings success.”

Big Valley Buzz

Showtime has yet to announce a decision on what was to be its next comedy, Happyish, greenlit in January just weeks before Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in and executive produced the pilot, died of a drug overdose. “We’re still trying to figure out what there is to do with the project in light of the tragedy,” Levine says. HBO, meanwhile, will take a swing at enormous ratings success April 6, when it premieres Silicon Valley, a new comedy from Beavis and Butt- Head and King of the Hill creator Mike Judge. The series, which aims to ride the “nerd chic” wave (see FF/RWD, page 34) has benefited from the type of marketing push reserved for the network’s top shows. Bloys points out that it will premiere at the same time of year that Girls and Veep—both of which draw audiences far larger than most of the network’s other comedies do—debuted their first seasons in.

Bloys also draws a creative connection between the three series. Girls, Veep and Silicon Valley, he says, are driven by creators—Lena Dunham, Armando Iannucci and Judge, respectively—who bring “more of an auteur feel” to their work. That approach is facilitated by premium cable’s short seasons and unique landscape.

“I don’t think it would be possible for Lena or Mike Judge or Armando to do 22 episodes” on a broadcast network, Bloys says. “It’s just not the kind of comedy that they are doing.”