Like Mad Men before it, yesterday we learned that despite being written about by every media outlet ever, all the time, HBO's new series Girls received only so-so numbers for its premiere. And by "so-so" we mean for premium cable. Its estimated 1.1 million viewers would be an outright disaster on any of the major broadcast networks. But if so few people watched, why did so many people write about it?
The premiere of Mad Men did much better (though AMC is basic cable) with 3.5 million viewers. Sunday's episode came in nearly a quarter lower with 2.6 million viewers. But still it's a cultural phenomenon, this Mad Men. There's Mad Men-inspired clothing lines, Jon Hamm is a movie star, myriad cheap knock-off shows have come and gone on various networks since the show first hit, etc. It's a big deal. And yet, only a population the size of Chicago actually watches the thing, though reading its coverage, one would think the entire nation is transfixed by the fate of Pete Campbell. (Imagine, for example, your favorite website being taken over by the victory of Valerie Warner, host of WGN's Morning News, in Dancing with Chicago Celebrities.) Mad Men would not only be insta-canceled on even a struggling broadcast network like NBC, even on cable it's about on par with the freaking Client List. Basically nobody watches Mad Men, at least not in its initial airings.
Maybe people are watching DVDs or Netflix or whatever later? Maybe many more people watch Mad Men than its weekly ratings suggest, and many more will someday watch Girls, but for now the relationship between viewership and coverage is wildly disproportionate. That is, we guess, the way with "cool" things. Why talk about all the broad popularity of NCIS or The Big Bang Theory when there's some seemingly "indie" show, something complicated and smart that you can be all about instead? There's an assumption that if a show like NCIS does so well then a lot of people, somewhere, must be writing about it, so we should cover something smaller and lesser known. Only that thinking has proven wholly unoriginal, and so we get buried under a mountain of coverage for the assumedly overlooked shows, resulting in weeks' worth of coverage of a show that only 875,000 people watched in its initial airing. (That was Girls' number before being combined with a later rebroadcast.) That's ridiculous! That's totally silly. Shouldn't it be the other way around?
Well, eh, no not really. What analysis is there really to be done of NCIS? Yes we recently advocated that people write about these less-heralded shows, so now saying it's boring to do so might be a bit flip-floppy (we're with ya, Mitt!), but it remains true. There's nothing to say about an old, mass appeal show like NCIS and there's nothing to say about a new, slightly less mass appeal show like, say, The Finder. Or at least it can seem that way from this vantage point. There are of course entire websites devoted to these shows and other websites that at least cover them and their ik with some degree of frequency. (EW.com comes to mind.) So it's out there, but the front-and-center media, the stuff that's passed around Twitter and Tumblr (or at least our Twitters and our Tumblrs) is obviously more concerned with this prestige stuff. Most people don't drive BMWs but they probably talk about about them more than Corollas, right?
So we can understand why the coverage is skewed, but let's just cop to the fact right now that it's deeply silly. It's deeply silly that basically the city of Baltimore watches Girls and nobody else. Numbers-wise, that's it. Just Baltimore and a few suburbs, while the entire rest of the nation watches other things. And yet everyone the nation over breathlessly covers Baltimore's favorite local show as if it's the second coming of the M*A*S*H finale or something. That's a pretty silly phenomenon and maybe one we should all keep in mind as we sift through a raft of Girls coverage and wonder what all the fuss is about. Turns out, there is no fuss. Or rather the fuss is the fuss. Let's just keep that important, sobering fact in mind. In truth, the Girls have no clothes.
Hey HBO, that'd be a good slogan for you, about the girls with no clothes. Bet more people would watch then. Works for Game of Thrones! Relatively speaking, anyway.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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