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This column is about two cable shows. The first is a prestige limited series starring two multiple Oscar nominees. Airing on a cable network that’s known for high-quality series, it got heavy promotion and is likely to be a contender in the next awards season.
The second is a loose hangout comedy starring and made by members of a cult comedy troupe, airing on a channel mostly known for unscripted fare. A certain set of sports viewers may have seen promos for it, but the campaign wasn’t massive.
The two shows are on different ratings paths — and not in the obvious way. The first, FX’s Fosse/Verdon starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, premiered to modest numbers and declined noticeably in its second week. The second, TruTV’s Tacoma FD, has quietly built a consistent, solid core viewership.
Their divergent paths so far are a good illustration of the fragmented audience for Nielsen-measured networks, and cable in particular, in the Peak TV era. Primetime viewership on ad-supported cable entertainment networks was down 7 percent in 2018 from the previous year; only a relative handful of the hundreds of cable entertainment series consistently draw more than a million viewers.
How each show’s performance is viewed — their raw numbers aren’t so far apart — also says something about what’s expected from their respective homes.
Fosse/Verdon premiered to 614,000 viewers on April 9, along with a 0.14 rating among adults 18-49 (equivalent to about 180,000 viewers in the demo). It benefited heavily from DVR playback, rising to 1.2 million after three days — but that’s a middle-of-the-pack number for FX at best. The first two episodes of the network’s What We Do in the Shadows outdrew it, and it’s well below the typical American Horror Story or Mayans MC episode.
The second episode of Fosse/Verdon fell 31 percent to 425,000 same-day viewers; if it roughly doubles in three days as the premiere did, that will put its audience around 850,000.
Granted, a period drama about the relationship between two Broadway lifers (no matter how legendary) probably has a lower ceiling than, say, American Horror Story. But Fosse/Verdon also ranks fourth among six cable limited series debuts in recent months, behind HBO’s True Detective (2.1 million), Bravo’s Dirty John (2.1 million) and TNT’s I Am the Night (1.9 million). It did outdraw Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora (607,000) and HBO’s Italian-language My Brilliant Friend (310,000).
Tacoma FD, meanwhile, comes from members of Broken Lizard (Kevin Heffernan and Steve Lemme, who co-created and star), the team behind Super Troopers. It premiered March 27 after a decent promotional push during TruTV’s (and TNT’s) coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It is one of just a handful of scripted series on the channel, better known for un- or semi-scripted series like Impractical Jokers and Adam Ruins Everything.
Tacoma FD has also performed very solidly. Following Impractical Jokers on Thursdays, the show is averaging about 410,000 same-day viewers, improving to just under 800,000 after three days. That’s better than anything on TruTV aside from its lead-in. More than 70 percent of the three-day audience (573,000) falls in the 18-49 demographic, and it’s the No. 1 new cable comedy of the season in adults 18-34.
Considering TruTV averaged just over 300,000 total viewers in primetime in 2018, the strong early performance of Tacoma FD stands out even more.
That it’s possible to look at two shows with not wildly dissimilar audiences and come to two such different conclusions about their performance also says something about what’s expected from each show’s home. FX has built its brand over the past decade-plus on critical hits that sometimes break out with viewers. It’s a pretty strong performer ratings-wise, ranking 12th overall (among 78 cable entertainment networks) and in the top 10 in key demographics in 2018. But with increased visibility comes more scrutiny.
TruTV, on the other hand, is in the middle of the pack in ratings — it performs best among adults under 35, where it ranked 21st last year. But the WarnerMedia-owned channel knows its brand, and it never strays too far from the off-kilter sensibility it has established in recent years. In a TV world where broad-based hits are ever harder to find, serving a niche audience well can allow a show like Tacoma FD to set itself up for a solid run of success.
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