When Mad Men returned to AMC for its fifth season after a 17-month hiatus, the endless media hype (including on Slate, of course)—and, perhaps, the first four seasons’ presence on Netflix’s streaming service—led to a jump in viewership. The two-hour season premiere was seen by 3.5 million people, making it the show’s most-watched episode to date.
In the U.K., the ratings were… not quite as good. When the show aired there, only 98,000 viewers watched the premiere; a week later the audience for Episode 3 dropped to 47,000. Mad Men’s influence has always exceeded its audience—on March 25, when the show notched that record U.S. audience, it was handily beaten in the same time slot by an NCIS rerun on the USA network. Still, 47,000? According to the Guardian, that “level of audience is associated with extreme niche arts, religion, or politics programmes.”
The U.K. population is about one-fifth that of the United States (62 million compared with an estimated 313 million) but Brits watch a lot of television—and have fewer channels to choose from. In the U.K., the top-rated show of the week usually draws around 10 million viewers, while the most-seen U.S. show tends to garner around 20 million.
The biggest reason for Mad Men’s poor performance is that it now airs on Sky Atlantic, a subscription channel that launched in February 2011. Sky Atlantic is the exclusive home of HBO shows in the U.K. (though a couple, such as True Blood and Eastbound and Down—a show that surely makes no sense whatsoever outside North America—had pre-existing deals on other channels). It also airs a range of non-HBO prestige U.S. dramas, such as Nurse Jackie, Friday Night Lights, and, um, Blue Bloods.
Like HBO and Showtime in the United States, premium British channels make their money from subscriptions rather than advertising, so ratings are far less important than they would be on a typical commercial channel. (BBC channels are funded by a compulsory TV license fee—currently £145.50, or about $230, per year—and they do not have commercials.) Sky Atlantic costs £19.50 ($31) per month, and, like the U.S. premium channels, it provides on-demand and mobile options that allow subscribers to watch whenever they want, a service that shrinks the initial ratings figures. When DVR and on-demand viewings are taken into account, the audience for the Season 5 premiere jumped from 98,000 to 191,000.
Still, Game of Thrones, which also has its U.K. home on Sky Atlantic, attracted 522,000 viewers to the first episode of Season 2. In the U.S., on the other hand, that show was not hugely more popular than Mad Men: The latter’s season premiere had 3.5 million viewers to the former’s 3.9.
Why is the gap so much larger across the pond? I suspect that many of those unwilling to pay for premium channels are the very folks who would tune into Mad Men if they could.
Consider the example of soccer and cricket. When soccer shifted from “free TV” (if such a thing exists in a nation with a TV license) to the pay channels, soccer-mad households signed up for Sky by the millions in order to watch the top fixtures on its sports channels. However, as the Guardian’s Mark Lawson pointed out, when international cricket—not as popular as soccer, to be sure, but closer than you may think—went behind a paywall, the audience did not follow to the same extent.
Mad Men, I would suggest, is cricket to the soccer of Game of Thrones. It has always been a niche show—when it aired on BBC 4, the first episode of Season 4 drew 355,000 viewers—but, more importantly, it’s a niche that would rather wait for the DVDs than pay $30 per month to see Don Draper and co. right away.