In 2011, FX changed the rules with American Horror Story (AHS) and TV has been adapting ever since. This year HBO (a subsidiary of Time Warner (NYSE:TWX)) became the first network to take a page out of its network rival's playbook with True Detective. As the show nears its Sunday finale, it's worth asking the question...was it a hit?
A new chapter
Audiences remember that when Horror Story first aired, it too was a radical concept in that it told an anthology style story with what would be a rotating cast. It was risky for a ton of reasons, not the least being uncertainty if audiences would embrace the horror genre. It turns out they did in a big way and also were receptive to the closed-ended storytelling approach.
Detective took that strategy and instead of copying it, evolved it. The series tackled the crime genre and condensed its tale to just eight episodes. They also made it clear the show's megastar leads Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were only attached for one season, and unlike AHS they wouldn't return as new characters. As of late, movie stars coming to TV for limited-run series are a popular industry trend especially among actors as it requires little commitment on their part and they get amazing exposure out of the deal.
Now with any show, success comes down to two factors: ratings and reaction. HBO launched Detective on Jan. 12, and it made an immediate impression. Detective earned 2.3 million viewers over its initial airing, which was 100,000 more viewers than Game of Thrones did with its premiere. It was the largest debut for an HBO series since Boardwalk Empire earned 4.8 million viewers in 2010.
Including reairs, Detective's first episode ended up totaling 3.3 million viewers ... and that was just the start. As the series got more intense, so did the ratings -- the show was averaging nearly 11 million viewers a week when counting time-shifting viewings. By comparison Game of Thrones, which remains the network's most-watched show, usually earns 13.6 million viewers a week when replays, HBO Go, and On Demand viewers are lumped together. Original episodes jumped as well with 2.6 million viewers tuning into watch the show's sixth episode live.
However Detective has actually benefited HBO in another way as it had a halo effect on its lead-outs Girls and Looking. Girls opened to a first-run series high of 1.1 million viewers, a 28% jump from season two, and on average has around 4 million views during the week.
Meanwhile, Looking bowed to a painfully small 338,000 viewers, but the niche series grew throughout the season and now has a more respectable 519,000 viewers who watch live and nearly 2 million who watch later. While Girls was always a lock for renewal due to its award-season buzz, Looking was on the verge of being canceled, but has since earned a second season. Many credit Detective with bringing those initial viewers to the network. Yes, there's a major disconnect between the plot of Detective and Girls/Looking, but there will always be some cross-over no matter how small, and Looking has been the best companion series for Girls in its three years on air.
With Detective being a ratings winner in more ways than one, the other area is reaction. It's one thing for a show to bring in numbers, but it's even better for business if there is a buzz from audiences. Detective has that as well. The initial announcement that McConaughey and Harrelson were attached drew a huge response from audiences. It was a perfect casting job and the two play incredibly well off each other.
Viewers were also patient as they knew the show was only eight episodes, so there would be little if any filler. As the weeks went on, the mystery got deeper and darker with the show's flashback device adding a new layer of complexity to the mix. The performances also reached new levels of intensity as both actors were given extremely meaty material to work with it.
It's also worth noting the series aired during the Oscar voting period, so on top of McConaughey's jaw-dropping performance in Dallas Buyers Club, voters were also exposed to the actor in this role as well. It's entirely likely his part in Detective helped him earn extra votes en route to his win, which was an unintended but interesting side benefit.
The only real mystery about the show (outside of this Sunday's big reveal), is when HBO will order a second season. Given the ratings and reaction, this has been a major win for the network. And with so many shows exiting its fold in 2014, the series looks like it could be a permanent fit for the winter period where HBO has not had a lot of success in recent years.
So what would a season two look like? After all Detective's first season bucked the traditional business model is nearly every way conceivable including having series creator Nic Pizzolatto write every episode and then turning over the reins over to Cary Fukunaga who directed them all. That type of two-man producing structure rarely happens and both men have said they will need outside help for season two.
Fukunaga may not even return as a director -- last month Fox snatched him up for a new feature film. Pizzolatto will also have to find a new acting tag team that worked as well as this one; reports have surfaced he may flip the script and cast two female leads. However he decides to do it, he's won enough respect and trust from audiences that you can bet they'll happily go along for the ride.
Brett Gold has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.