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Based on all the hype for the return last Sunday of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” you would have thought a veritable mob of viewers would be camped out in front of their sets to see Tony, Carm, Bobby and Janice playing a rock `em, sock `em game of Monopoly in the first of the critically adored pay-cable series’ final nine episodes.


Didn’t exactly happen that way.


Only 7.7 million viewers that night caught the first new episode of “The Sopranos” since June 4. That’s 1.8 million fewer than tuned in for the series return for a sixth season 13 months ago and way off the show’s fourth season opener, in September 2002, when almost 13 million tuned in.


This might be a matter of one dream sequence or stereotype too many for some fans. And, perhaps, it reflects the fact the broadcast networks have beefed up lineups for Sunday night.


But if “The Sopranos,” technically resuming its sixth season, is no longer appointment viewing, the reason also may be the realization that an appointment is no longer needed.


Although the popularity of “The Sopranos” probably crested with that fourth season, anyone with HBO today knows its programming repeats several times over the course of a week and on several HBO channels. Plus, the show is available on demand for subscribers who have figured out how to use that service.


It’s like calling McDonald’s for a dinner reservation. If you show up for supper in shoes and a shirt you can get a table and some McNuggets.


For last year’s 12 episodes James Gandolfini and “The Sopranos” averaged 8.6 million viewers on Sundays. Yet, by the end of a given week, its cumulative audience bulged to 13.1 million. Another 1 million viewers kept pace through HBO On Demand, according to HBO.


That doesn’t take into account the “Sopranos” fans who, fed up with the long waits between seasons, decided they might as well wait for DVD sets to come out, and would-be viewers who settled for the sanitized version on A&E, which requires no subscription.


Chris Albrecht, the head of HBO, likes to point out that those who cite only the ratings for its shows, particularly those who cite declining ratings for its shows, don’t understand HBO’s business model. It’s not about delivering viewers to advertisers. It’s about getting subscribers and keeping them for cable systems, whether it’s through series such as “The Sopranos” and “Entourage,” theatrical movies, original movies, Bill Maher, boxing, “Real Sex” or whatever.


Then there’s the extra money to be made from DVDs and rerun rights of original content.


Actually, as TV audiences - the audiences for all media, really - continue to splinter, it might be time for everyone to rethink the old metrics of viewership, listenership and circulation.


Online availability is seen as a way to build up the audience for some TV series, just as it expands the reach of radio and print outlets. But there’s also a growing recognition that Internet streaming of series is siphoning off some audience. In broadcast TV the effect has been seen particularly in receding viewership for reruns.


People who want to see an episode have never had more opportunities to keep up - and the options don’t play into the “who watched what Tuesday night” mentality embraced for decades. Nielsen Media Research is trying to expand its accounting to include time-shifting, viewing outside the home and on the Web.


That presumes Nielsen numbers can be relied upon, of course. The New York Times’ public editor last week awakened to the fact that Nielsen doesn’t provide a margin of error to its ratings, long an accepted standard, and said reports should carry a disclaimer calling ratings audience “estimates.”


It’s interesting that ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” the night’s most popular show, drew only an estimated 15.7 million viewers opposite “The Sopranos,” nearly 2 million viewers off the hit soap’s average this season and the lowest ratings for an original episode in its three-year history.


The old gang may not be what it once was, but it still has some muscle.

Tagged as: hbo | sopranos
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