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TV 101: They're Not TV Numbers. They're HBO Numbers.

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John P. Johnson (2) / HBO

Afraid I’m not going to get around to a Tell Me You Love Me Watch this week–knee-deep in a deadline for TIME’s “magazine,” which is kind of like a large blog with staples in it. I’ll try to catch up next week. In the meantime, here’s the next-best thing: a post about ratings statistics!

Last week I (and a few of you) expressed surprise that HBO renewed TMYLM, with a Sunday-night viewing average of 910,000. (My surprise, at least, was pleasant.) Not long after I hit “post,” I got an e-mail from HBO publicity contending that the show’s cumulative audience–counting On Demand, DVR viewings and reruns during the week–was much bigger: 3.2 million.

I’m always skeptical when networks–HBO, Showtime, CNN, whoever–volunteer “cumulative” ratings (if I hold my arms up, I am cumulatively over 6 feet tall). But I asked HBO to offer the same stats for some other current HBO shows, for an apples-to-apples comparison. Here are the numbers (pardon my formatting ineptitude), and if nothing else, it’s an interesting TV 101 insight into what HBO chooses to carry and why:

Big Love: 5.8 million (40% Sunday premiere / 60% other plays)
Entourage: 5.6 million (55/45)
The Wire: 4.4 million (40/60)
John from Cincinnati: 3.8 million (40/60)
TMYLM: 3.2 million (30/70)
Curb Your Enthusiam: 3.0 million (35/65)
Flight of the Conchords: 2.7 million (40/60)

Only 30% of TMYLM’s viewers, according to HBO, watch the “live” debut. (“It’s a show people want to watch privately, I imagine,” the publicist theorized dryly. I also wonder if the fact that episodes air a week early On Demand encourages that format.)

JFC fans will note that your show was canned, with 600,000 more viewers. One possible reason: David Milch is a genius, and he notoriously spends like one–the show’s production costs, and reported overruns, likely more than offset the edge in viewers over TMYLM, with all those economical interior sets. (And prosthetics aren’t that expensive.)

And pay-cable networks program with different goals in mind: if you subscribe to watch only one show, your money still spends the same. So a show can justify itself by drawing the right audience–say, younger viewers for FOTC, or women for TMYLM (from the only female creator in HBO’s historically Y-chromosome lineup). Arli$$ famously stayed on the air for years, with relatively few fans (none of them critics), because enough people told HBO they got the network for that show and nothing else. Go figure.

This concludes your Tell Me You Love Me post for the week. Sorry for the lack of nudity.

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