HBO doesn't care that people don't care about Vinyl.
When the network announced that it would be renewing the new series from Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) and Martin Scorsese, critics were surprised. For its overnight debut, Vinly only reached 764,000 viewers. In comparison, shows like Luck, Treme and The Leftovers all scored well over the one million viewers mark.
Many saw this as a massive failure for the network, which spent quite a bit of money and time on promoting the series they thought would be an absolute hit.
But here's the thing: HBO doesn't care about ratings. It doesn't have to. HBO cares about three things: Awards, critical acclaim and, above all else, fostering exclusive relationships with some of the biggest talent in the industry.
So, no, HBO doesn't care that people don't care about Vinyl.
IT'S A FAMILY BUSINESS
HBO has spent years working on the relationship it has with Winter. From the time he made himself known as one of the biggest up and coming writers to watch during his time on The Sopranos, HBO has bent over backwards to give the now executive producer what he wanted. For Winter, that meant his own show, Boardwalk Empire, and the financial support to make it as big as he needed it to be.
It was a bet that HBO was willing to take, and the payoff was almost immediate. The show was hailed by critics as one of the best new series on the network, earning multiple award nominations and wins.
The relationship between HBO and Winter deepened — both realized that they could give the other what they needed. Winter needed a network that wouldn't censor his signature style, which included heavy doses of violence and nudity, and HBO needed a writer who could bring that signature style of show to the network.
Boardwalk Empire lasted five seasons, and although the ratings remained high for the first few, the numbers drifted off toward the end. But much like Vinyl, HBO didn't care. The show was still receiving critical praise from various outlets and Steve Buscemi — who played main character Nucky Thompson — was still receiving award nominations for his work.
When the series came to an end, Winter wasn't sure whether or not he wanted to jump into a new series right away, but when the opportunity came up to create a show with Scorsese and Mick Jagger about the punk scene in 1970s New York City, he couldn't say no.
Like Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl would try to be edgy and target itself toward the audience the network had founded itself on. Unlike Boardwalk Empire, however, Vinyl would have names like Scorsese and Jagger behind it, only increasing the level of star power HBO was bringing to its original content.
The amount of people watching a series seems less important than it did before.
HBO immediately gave Winter the green light on the project, and just like that, the network's next big project was born.
Except, as we all know now, the reception to the show wasn't what people thought it would be. While HBO may have been disappointed with the less than stellar debut numbers, it didn't stop the network from renewing the series after just one episode. For a network that doesn't rely on ratings to secure advertisers, the amount of people watching a series seems less important than it did before.
Jenni Konner, the executive producer of HBO's Girls, once said during a Hollywood Reporter roundtable that even though the ratings for Girls had begun to slip, HBO couldn't care less because it still had Game of Thrones on the air.
HBO told Konner it was more interested in the numerous write-ups Girls was getting in publications like The New Yorker and the New York Times than it was about having Girls be the number one show watched on television.
Not only was Girls getting the critical attention HBO prided itself on, but it also allowed HBO to foster its relationship with Lena Dunham, who proved after the show's first season that she was a talent other networks and studios were going to want to poach. By giving Dunham the freedom to work on her own series and have her produce the show without worrying about ratings, HBO almost guaranteed that it would get first bids on any new series the writer wanted to work on in the future.
Just like it's done repeatedly with Scorsese and Winter. Vinyl could have lived on another network, like Showtime, but the relationship between the two creatives and HBO made the network seem like the only option.
Sure, Vinyl didn't do the numbers the network expected it would, but if the result by the end of the season is that more people are writing about the show (like this piece) and it manages to pick up a nomination or two, it's still an overwhelming win.
HBO also has the freedom to continue exploring an underperforming show like Vinyl without having to worry about the financial repercussions.
One of the biggest reasons CBS, ABC and NBC put such an enormous effort on producing shows that will bring in strong ratings is because they use those ratings to ensure advertisers stick around. When The Big Bang Theory is pulling in millions of live viewers week after week, it's easier to convince Coca-Cola to invest millions into airing a commercial during the show.
If this had been any other network, Vinyl wouldn't have been renewed this quickly.
It's one of the main reasons many of the shows on these networks look the same. How many different CSI spinoffs can CBS put out? How many Dick Wolf (creator of Law & Order) series can NBC order? How many Shonda Rhimes (creator of Scandal) series can ABC fit into Thursday night?
The networks are constantly worried about finances and because of that, rely on ratings more than anything else to see if a show is worth pursuing.
Simply put, they're willing to give up pursuing awards and critical acclaim in order to keep profits up and shows on the air.
HBO, on the other hand, doesn't have to worry about advertisers because of its subscriber-based system and can afford to explore a variety of different series, seeing which ones spark an interest with audiences and which ones don't. Let us not forget that The Wire, a show with an incredibly slow pace in its first season, also aired to small rating numbers. The Wire, for what it's worth, is now considered one of the best series in television history and flagship HBO series.
HBO can afford to spend millions on letting Winter and Scorsese create a second season of Vinyl because the payoff of having them around for future series, original films and documentaries outweighs the small viewership.
The executives at HBO know what they're doing, but it can't be overstated enough that this formula only works for a subscription-based network. Although Netflix hasn't released any numbers related to how many people are watching its original series, it's another example of a network that could invest in five seasons of a show, even if no one was watching, without having to worry about financial drawback from it.
If this had been any other network, Vinyl wouldn't have been renewed this quickly. There would be conversations about whether or not it was worth pursuing, whether companies were still interested in advertising during that time slot and whether there was anything left to salvage for the remaining season.
But HBO promised Scorsese and Winter more than just a network for their show to air on. They promised them a home, full of unwavering support no matter what happened.
IT'S MORE THAN JUST A SHOW
HBO doesn't care that we don't care about Vinyl, and really, why should they?
After Vinyl is done, Martin Scorsese will still agree to make original content and documentary films for the network. After Vinyl is done, Terence Winter will still return to the network when he figures out what his next project will be. After Vinyl is done, HBO will still be able to point to it and proudly proclaim they housed a Mick Jagger production.
Vinyl isn't a failure for the network, nor is it a setback. It's just another series with star talent that HBO will bring back again and again and again.
And that is nothing short of a huge success.