HBO’s ‘True Blood’: Audiences don’t bite


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HBO just can’t catch a break.

After engineering a massive, multimillion-dollar marketing campaign to promote ‘True Blood, the new vampire series from Alan Ball, Sunday’s premiere drew just 1.44 million viewers.

That’s bad news for the cable channel, which hasn’t been able to launch a new one-hour drama to any kind of ratings fanfare in some time. Without one of its previous powerhouse lead-ins (‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Sex and the City’) its new shows have floundered.

David Milch’s offbeat surf drama ‘John From Cincinnati’ debuted to 3.4 million in June 2007 (albeit following the well-attended series finale of ‘The Sopranos’), while the sexually explicit drama ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ suffered without a strong lead-in, premiering to 910,000 viewers in September 2007.

Neither of those shows was as heavily marketed as ‘True Blood,’ and both were canceled after one season. (The low-budget ‘In Treatment,’ a half-hour, five-night-a-week therapy drama starring Gabriel Byrne, was renewed for a second season but delivered even more modest ratings than ‘Tell Me.’)

The ‘True Blood’ audience was lower than even the last new episode of HBO’s ‘Big Love,’ which delivered 2.88 million in August 2007. And it pales overall when compared with the network’s past drama premieres such as ‘Big Love’ (4.56 million in March 2006), ‘Rome’ (3.8 million in August 2005) and Deadwood’ (5.79 million in March 2004).


It should be noted that pay channels like HBO and Showtime air their series episodes several times over the course of a week and over various multiplexes, and HBO executives will be paying close attention to the ‘True Blood’ premiere’s cumulative viewership. (A later 10:30 p.m. airing Sunday added 672,000 viewers to that overall tally).

On the positive tip, reviews for ‘True Blood’ have ranged from lukewarm to enthusiastic. Times critic Mary McNamara was less of a fan, saying Ball zapped the fun out of the original Charlaine Harris’ novels and turned it into a ‘heavy-handed political fable.’

Ball, of ‘Six Feet Under’ fame, tried to level expectations for the series last week, telling Time Out Chicago that he didn’t feel the pressure to strike gold twice. ‘I do the best show I can, then I go home and I have a life. Ultimately, it’s just television.’

Meanwhile, 1.645 million tuned in afterward for the Season 5 premiere of ‘Entourage.’ Numbers improved upon ‘True Blood,’ but also rank as the series’ smallest audience since July 2005. The premiere was down 29% from the fourth-season opener.

-- Denise Martin