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Did 'Black Sails' Deliver Starz Ratings Gold?

By Brett Gold – Jan 29, 2014 at 3:00AM

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Starz debuted its new series "Black Sails" over the weekend and the results are definitely a mixed bag for the network.

Credit: Starz

After a long marketing and PR campaign, Starz (STRZA) officially debuted its first new series of 2014 over the weekend. How it did really depends on how you want to look at it, however.

Overall, Starz is reporting that the series plundered and pillaged its way to around 3.5 million viewers over its launch weekend, making it the strongest new series debut in network history. While that's an impressive number, it does need to be broken down a little bit more for perspective.

Remember that Starz made "Black Sails" available across a ton of platforms, and those non-traditional viewings are accounted for inside that number. So are people who time-shifted the series and watched it at some point over the weekend.

Keeping that in mind, on a more micro level:

  • Nearly 850,000 viewers came from the initial series "debut" Saturday night at 9 p.m.
  • A total of 1.7 million viewers watched one of the (multiple) Saturday night airings.
  • Overall 2.6 million viewers watched at some point during the weekend.
  • An additional 900,000 viewers came from "on demand" and streaming viewing.

Now, all together we get close to that 3.5 million viewer mark.

Where does that rank among the Starz universe?

With that in mind, look at how the series fared against past Starz originals based solely on initial TV time slot airings alone. Overall, it paints an interesting picture. Those nearly 850,000 viewers from that first airing are less than the 1.04 million viewers brought in by 2013 series "Da Vinci's Demons," but that series also had the benefit of following the series finale of "Spartacus," which helped to goose those numbers. However, the "Black Sails" opening did top a number of other previous series debuts including "Torchwood: Miracle Day" (811,000), "Boss" (659,000), "White Queen" (457,000), and "Magic City" (295,000.)

So what does this mean for the network? Overall, it's actually good news as it means the show was sampled by a solid cross-section. As with most shows, however, this week's second episode will tell a better story.

The simple truth is that we live in a different digital age than when some of these shows debuted (even the one's bowing as recently as 2011) and so each series has to be judged on a different set of rules. That's why we only look at something like the initial airing's numbers. The twist here is that Starz really went out of its way to make sure if you wanted to see this show, you could.

The matchup with other networks

Even with all of this taken into account, the fact remains that it is still lower than rivals HBO (a subsidiary of Time Warner (TWX)) and Showtime (a subsidiary of CBS (PARA 6.25%)). By comparison, when "True Detective" premiered earlier in the year, it did so to an initial audience of 2.3 million viewers. Even fewer watched "Girls," which had 1.1 million viewers. Over on Showtime, "Shameless" opened its new season with 1.7 million viewers, followed by "House of Lies" with 842,000 viewers and "Episodes" with 500,000 viewers.

Now again, it's unfair to compare these one-to-one because of a variety of factors.

For one, HBO and Showtime slate their originals on Sundays and Starz had its offerings premiere either on a Friday or Saturday. Also, that 1.7 million viewer number mentioned above is over four different airings, while usually HBO and Showtime only run between two and three encores a night. Those are often increased when factoring people watching on the mobile HBO Go app, however. 

Either way, Starz has reason to believe that "Black Sails" could be a hit for the network. With a full two seasons of episodes ready to unfurl between this year and next, audiences will have plenty of time to join in on the ride. The network is looking for a big hit, and this week's premiere looks to have been a step in the right direction.

Fool contributor Brett Gold owns shares of CBS. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. 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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