What ‘Fargo’s’ Debut Ratings Mean for FX’s Future

While FX's (a subsidiary of Fox (NASDAQ: FOXA  ) ) new limited-run series Fargo got a very warm reception from critics, the reaction from audiences was a little more mixed. The drama, starring Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, pulled in respectable numbers with its premiere, but not the Earth-shattering ones many may have hoped for ... at least not yet.

Ratings

("Fargo." Credit: FX)

Based on the 1996 Oscar-winning film by the Coen Brothers, Fargo kicked off its 10-week run Tuesday night with 2.7 million viewers tuning in, pulling a 0.8 rating in the all-important 18-49 demographic. That might not look like much, but after adding in the two replays, that number ballooned to 4.1 million viewers and a much stronger 1.4 demo rating. And delayed viewing -- people recording then watching during the ensuing week on their own terms -- is having an ever increasing effect.

Adding in those who got around to watching within three days of the original helped offset initially disappointing numbers for other recent shows. The Americans' second season opener the other month earned 1.9 million viewers live, but when (the now more accepted) +3-day time-shifted viewing data came in, that number vaulted to 3.3 million. Similarly last summer's rookie drama The Bridge ended up around 3 million viewers in its +3. So Fargo's numbers will improve once all the views of its 90-minute opener are counted.

Analysis

What the means is that Fargo basically got off to a so-so start, though it's hard to truly judge it without the full time-shifted picture. Looking at just the early ratings, the slightly lower than expected results could be a result of the longer run time or more likely audience aversion to the darker material audiences have come to expect from Joel and Ethan Coen.

 

Still you have to remember FX by nature is a darker network -- just look at The Shield and American Horror Story -- so this is a perfect home. The twist here is that in other cases audiences will usually tune into a new series and then base future viewing on that first episode; here there was already an established formula. While it was a benefit that audiences were aware of the world (and style) in which Fargo takes place, it also immediately turned off viewers who weren't fans of the movie and as a result had no desire to check it out (even though the film and series have different plots).

Long run

("The Bridge." Credit: FX)

Fargo isn't the network's only hope for new series success in 2014 ... it just happens to be the first. Even if its numbers disappointment, FX's dramatic series forecast is still very strong, despite the upcoming departures of Sons of Anarchy and Justified. This week the network gave a third season renewal to The Americans, which has kept up its critical buzz in its sophomore run and is making a strong case (again) for Emmy consideration. In addition, this summer FX will bow two more new series as well as the second season of last year's hit The Bridge, which stars Demian Bichir and Diane Kruger.

Those two new series in particular could prove to be game-changers as both are already beginning to make waves. First in June is Tyrant, which comes from the powerhouse team of Gideon Raff, Howard Gordon, and Craig Wright. Fans may recognize those names from Emmy-winning dramas such as Homeland and 24. The series follows the second son of a Middle Eastern dictator who returns home after a self-imposed exile, during which he's married an American and had two kids.

Following that a month later is The Strain, which comes from the equally well known king of dark fantasy Guillermo del Toro. The series is based on his literary trilogy of the same name that he co-wrote with Chuck Hogan (who will also be one of the show's producers). Starring House of Cards' Cory Stoll, the series follows a Centers for Disease Control team who must battle a mysterious viral outbreak in NYC that has hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism.

These are high-profile series on two completely different ends of the spectrum. Tyrant is meant to be centered in reality while Strain is purely rooted in fiction, but that helps FX cast a wider net to hook viewers. The summer time may be the "off-season" for the major networks, but for cable it's open season. TNT, USA, and FX are just some of the many channels that value the same May-August time frame once discarded by short-sighted executives.

It's a time for networks to play around and see what its audiences respond best to without the constrictions of the typical programming year. Those lessons not only help set the tone for the rest of the year but allow networks to take fliers on shows like Fargo, which can be both polarizing and trendsetters.

Cable's dominance

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