Quality TV can't cash in on critical clout

'The Leftovers'

Story highlights

  • High-quality TV shows are generally niche commodities despite all the coverage showered on them
  • An examination of Nielsen results reinforced the gap that frequently exists between critical acclaim and ratings

(CNN)A prevalent theme about this summer's movies is that critics have exhibited heightened influence. Sites like Rotten Tomatoes have been cited for helping to depress box office on panned projects while boosting positively reviewed films, like "Wonder Woman."

Whether or not that's accurate, as the latest TV Critics Assn. tour comes to a close, it's notable that the praise heaped on many series -- amid TV's much-ballyhooed current golden age -- often doesn't inspire many people to tune in.
    Although television has become a more niche-oriented business, there are still massive hits, such as "The Big Bang Theory," "Game of Thrones" and "The Walking Dead." But several shows that dominate critics' best lists, earn industry accolades and generate gobs of analysis attract relatively puny audiences. Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu -- which have also made inroads in terms of prestige and awards recognition -- don't provide ratings data, so it's unknown how many people have watched something like "Transparent" or "The Handmaid's Tale."
    An examination of Nielsen results reinforced the gap that frequently exists based on a week's worth of live and delayed TV viewing between critical acclaim and ratings. While other means of distribution pad those audience totals, the linear numbers remain pretty good indices to provide apples-to-apples comparisons of how popular shows are.
    Recent seasons of HBO's "The Leftovers" and Starz's "American Gods" for example, both averaged about 1.3 million viewers per episode over seven days of viewing. "The Americans" and "Atlanta" -- airing on FX, a cable network received in more homes than those premium channels -- each averaged less than 2 million viewers.
    Those levels might not sound bad, but they pale compared to mass-appeal hits like CBS' "Big Bang Theory" and "NCIS," with average telecasts watched by more than 19 million and 18 million viewers, respectively; AMC's "The Walking Dead" (16.4 million); or HBO's "Game of Thrones" (nearly 12 million), by far the most popular pay TV program.
    Some critical darlings fare considerably worse. AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire," about to return for its fourth and final season, clocked in at a mere 660,000 viewers, while Showtime's "Twin Peaks" revival is drawing only 440,000.
    Similarly, the last season of HBO's "Girls" -- whose critical and cultural impact was always disproportionate to the size of its audience -- averaged a pretty paltry 1.09 million.
    These figures aren't intended to deride the shows, or for that matter, critics. But they reflect how high-quality TV shows are generally niche commodities despite all the coverage showered on them, and that fans -- both in the media and out -- can easily lose perspective about the reach of series that they watch.
    A few disclaimers are in order. Because fewer people subscribe to HBO, Showtime or Starz than receive, say, CBS. those channels have a distribution handicap, as do services like Netflix or Hulu. As noted, though, that doesn't prevent certain shows -- like "Game of Thrones" -- from reaching mass audiences, while most of the aforementioned series play to much narrower crowds despite the critical drumbeat.
    Perhaps more significantly, the one thing raw numbers can't measure is the audience's passion, which tends to be more intense with critical favorites -- and thus incentivizes media outlets to cover them. If viewers of "The Leftovers" or FX's "Louie," "Better Things" and "You're the Worst" are more engaged, they'll likely be more eager to seek out reviews and recaps of such fare.
    Many would argue the surge in more ambitious shows has brought out the best in critics. What seems equally clear, though, is that TV criticism still has its limits when it comes to inspiring viewers to sample programs. And if there's a "Rotten Tomatoes effect" in television, it's too small, at this point, to make much of a splat.