Critic's Notebook

On TV, buzz and ratings are often at odds

From left: Corey, Rick, and Richard Harrison of History’s “Pawn Stars.”
History Channel
From left: Corey, Rick, and Richard Harrison of History’s “Pawn Stars.”

Have you seen enough about “Girls,” the HBO series that is a portrait of a generation, an ironic portrait of a generation, or not a portrait of a generation at all so much as a portrait of unique characters who absolutely do not represent a generation?

“Girls” has been the object of endless media throat-clearing, spawning many, many miles of thinky opinion pieces, reviews, blog recaps, comments, Gawker hateration, and Lena Dunham interviews. It is the entertainment world’s version of a Supreme Court hearing or a budget battle, a gift to hungry news cycles everywhere. Like “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “Homeland,” “Girls” is a conversation starter.

Now when was the last time you read a story about the season arc of CBS’s “NCIS”? Or the surveillance issues raised by “Person of Interest,” also on CBS? Or the archeological, psychological, and financial import of History’s “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars”? Right, a pin drops. There is silence.


Consider this: The second-season finale of “Girls” in mid-March drew 632,000 viewers for its first airing, and 1.13 million total viewers after two additional airings that night. Meanwhile, last week, for an ordinary episode in the middle of its 10th season, “NCIS” brought in 19.7 million total viewers, and “NCIS: Los Angeles” was close behind with 16.8 million. So far this season, “Person of Interest” has averaged 16.2 million viewers per episode. And “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars” generally hover around 4 and 5 million, respectively.

Richard Foreman/CBS
Michael Weatherly, Mark Harmon, and Cote de Pablo in “NCIS.”
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Even “Lizard Lick Towing,” an unscripted repo series on truTV filled with brawling and name-calling, draws more viewers than “Girls.” Last week’s episode, in which Krazy Dave has to help grab a car at a porn shoot, drew about 2.2 million.

It’s fascinating to see in naked numbers just how much Buzz Rd. and Nielsen Rd. diverge. What the media and TV lovers talk and talk about isn’t exactly what most people are watching. Of course, there are many subtleties involved in viewership numbers, among them the addition of DVR and online views in the week after airing, the greater value of younger viewers than total viewers, and the DVD potential of certain series. Also, as a 22-year-old TV lover reminded me recently, many of his friends see “Girls” without, um, you know, paying. As a pirate might say, “Aar!” But still, even if it is less extreme than the total viewership numbers suggest, the disparity between the volume of buzz and the volume of audience is profound.

Sometimes, the noise about a show and the viewership are in synch — “American Idol,” for example, before it began to blur together with its clones, including “The Voice” and “The X Factor.” But more often, there is an interesting split, with “Mad Men” among the most dramatic examples. The AMC series has been the topic of scads of analysis, an icon of fashion, and an object of intense fandom since 2007, but its ratings have only slowly risen from an initial season average of 900,000 to last season’s 3.5 million. That’s a lot more than “Girls,” but chickenfeed beside, say, A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” which is pulling in some 8 million per episode. The 3.5 million of “Mad Men” is less than History’s “Swamp People” (4.8 million), less than the post-“Walking Dead” series “Talking Dead” (4.4 million), and, often, less than syndicated repeats of old “NCIS” episodes on USA. “Mad Men” has taken four Emmys for best drama, and the show that busted up its winning streak last year, “Homeland,” got between 2 and 3 million viewers.

Zach Dilgard/A&E
Phil Robertson of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.”

What’s this great divide about? There is an obvious political analogy to it, when you think of the East and West Coasts of the United States versus the middle of the country. Famously, the power of Middle America can be underestimated. Are Northeast liberals, California lefties, the media, and Hollywood driving the cultural conversation, while the rest of the country votes with their remotes? Are shows such as “Girls,” “Glee,” and “Breaking Bad” getting buzz because they’re sexier and more permissive — and therefore more stereotypically left-wing-friendly — than, say, “NCIS,” which revolves around military investigations? Are highbrow hippies obsessing over the moral bankruptcy of Walter White while History’s “The Bible” — which got negative reviews and has a 44 rating on Metacritic — pulls in over 10 million viewers a week?


While there may be some truth in that interpretation, I think there is also something indigenous to buzz shows that engenders conversation. There simply isn’t a lot to say about “NCIS”-style procedurals or reality shows such as “Duck Dynasty,” which tracks the mundane doings of an eccentric — and much-bearded — family and their successful business. These shows invite old-fashioned, passive viewing, with pleasures that are diverting and passing. The crime is or isn’t solved, and the Robertson family plays out little reality set pieces, week in and week out, without much depth. On “Judge Judy,” which gets over 9 million viewers in syndication, snappy wisdom is dispensed and guilt or innocence is pronounced.

The shows that get obsessive attention from fans and the media have denser story lines and more provocative themes. They bear up under scrutiny, and yield to exploration, more than many of those at the top of the charts. The writers and actors of the likes of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” work to give the character psychological dimension, so that viewers can extrapolate about them. They want to start a conversation.

The shows with larger audiences more often aim to either provide escape or, in the case of gimmicky reality shows such as “Lizard Lick Towing,” comic disbelief. They aren’t seeking fandom and episode dissection so much as grabbing eyeballs. Thanks to the financial structure of cable, which is less ad-dependent, or to the low expectations of NBC (which kept the low-rated but much-celebrated “30 Rock” on the air), buzz series can stay alive even while their ratings aren’t strong. They are open invitations for viewers to pick apart, to anatomize, to assess, rather than to sit back and zone. All you need to say about “Rules of Engagement,” which draws over 6 million viewers a week, you learned in kindergarten.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.