What ‘True Detective’ Ratings Mean for HBO and Network TV

HBO's 'True Detective' wrapped on Sunday with impressive numbers, but it's what those numbers mean that tell a more interesting story.

Mar 11, 2014 at 10:24AM

If you've seen True Detective on HBO (a subsidiary of Time Warner (NYSE:TWX)), you know it's no mystery why the show is so successful. But Sunday night the series hit a new ratings high and at the same time literally (temporarily) broke HBO's signature app ... not bad for a rookie series.

Overwhelming evidence


(Credit: HBO)

True Detective launched in January to 2.3 million viewers and over the next few weeks built that to an average haul of around 11 million a week when all avenues of viewing were counted. The anthology series' finale soared and took in 3.5 million viewers in its initial airing and nearly 5 million including replays. Overall, Detective looks set to become HBO's second most-watched freshman series of all time, just behind Six Feet Under.

For those keeping score that leap in live viewers from premiere to finale is about a 50% increase, which is remarkable for a cable freshman series. In fact, demand was so high that HBO GO, the network's streaming service, temporarily crashed leading viewers to take their aggression out through social media.

Industry impact


(Credit: HBO)

I've already written about why True Detective was a hit for HBO, but Sunday night's numbers set up a new discussion about what it means not just for the network, but for the industry overall. First, it shows executives that people would much rather watch programming on their mobile devices than on an actual TV. Granted the success of Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime were precursors to this fact, but for so many HBO subscribers to opt to watch a weekly episodic series on another screen sends a message.

Remember HBO only offers the GO service to its subscribers, so most people had the choice to watch on cable, but opted not to go the traditional route. Other sites have also surmised that part of that the bump could have come from viewers who couldn't access HBO GO because of the crash and were forced to watch on TV instead, which is a valid point. But the fact remains those same viewers were eventually going to tune in, some just didn't have a choice as to how.

'American Cable Story'

The other industry trend the numbers show is that it backs up the "anthology" model made popular by FX's American Horror Story. It's not fair to compare numbers to numbers in this case because one's on cable and one's on pay TV, but the overall result is the same -- audiences tuned in and stayed invested throughout.

The allure of it being a limited-run "event" mini-series mixed with the presence of top-tier leads Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrleson made viewers flock to the series. The fact is that if you were even remotely interested in the drama, you had to watch in a certain timeframe or risk being left out of the conversation, sentenced to a term of dodging potential spoilers. Now again it didn't matter how you watched, just that you watched. The ratings still support this type of program structure and audiences seem willing to invest in a show with a definite end point and a rotating cast.

Even though HBO hasn't officially renewed the show, its production team is already mapping out possibilities for a sophomore run. It's possible executives want to wait until they have interest from new "A-level" leads before making anything official, but expect that to happen sooner than later. Regardless with these numbers and this buzz, expect True Detective to be back on the case in 2015.

In the meantime, leave a comment and join the conversation. How did you watch True Detective's finale and why did you choose that method? Who should they cast for a potential second season? Let us know.

HBO doesn't have to be the only beneficiary of this new way of programming ... you can as well. The key to profiting off this type of analysis is to invest in companies you have a genuine interest in and then turn those industry insights into a strong portfolio through smart and steady investing. If you're interested in learning how to make some of the top entertainment properties work for you, make sure to check out The Motley Fool's free special report, which is an essential guide to investing. You can click here to get your copy today – and start profiting off the areas you enjoy reading about the most.


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.

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