The long-awaited return of the magnificent Mad Men to our screens has been met with a rapturous welcome from its fans and acres of excited press coverage.
Four years after we first met Don Draper, everything we’ve always loved about the show is still there. Great acting. Sharp dialogue. Bad behaviour. And vintage style in spades.
What’s different this time is that Season 5 of Mad Men has a new home on Sky Atlantic. Now it’s available to around 10 million Sky households, less than half as many as in its previous home on BBC4, which reaches cable and Freeview households too. And that shift has prompted one or two people to look at the audience figures and draw, in my view, some misleading conclusions about its popularity.
So what can we say about the viewing figures so far?
First, when you look at the audience watching the show either live or during the following seven days, it’s clear that Mad Men is more popular than ever among Sky customers.Back when it was on BBC4, the biggest ever audience for Mad Men in Sky homes was 141,000 viewers (for the very first episode of Season 1 in 2008). By contrast, the first episode of Season 5 was watched by a total of 209,000, an increase of almost 50%. The average for the first three episodes of this series is 142,000, which is 38% up on Season 4 in Sky homes. But this isn’t about who got more viewers than who. Ultimately it’s about creating value for customers.
Second, as my colleague Stuart Murphy has previously pointed out, in these days of Sky+ and on-demand viewing, the “live” audience for a show’s premiere on linear TV is far less important than once was the case. During the series so far, a staggering 79% of Mad Men’s total audience has watched the show in ‘time-shifted’ mode. In other words, the audience increases five-fold once you factor in Sky+, Sky Anytime and Sky Go. The story is similar for other Sky Atlantic shows such as Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire.
In other words, audience behaviour is changing dramatically as people take advantage of all the different ways to catch up with their favourites. These days, to measure how successful a show is, we need to look at how it is enjoyed across all platforms it's shown on. It’s not just us who realises this – the BBC too have recently launched a new measurement system that does exactly that. Anecdotally, we’re all aware of the trend for people to stack up episodes on their Sky+ box to enjoy in a single viewing, the same way they might watch a box set. We go out of our way to offer all that flexibility to Sky customers because it really doesn’t matter to us how they choose to watch – live, on-demand, on the go, or catch-up. So, if some commentators continue to fixate on ratings for linear TV premieres, perhaps it’s time for them to catch up too?
Finally, let’s not lose sight of the most important thing of all. The success of Mad Men – and the reason why it is such great TV – has never really been about the size of the audience. There are, and there always will be, many other shows that get more viewers. But there are few which inspire the same levels of passion and devotion among their fans. That’s why Mad Men makes such sense for a subscription business like Sky. We’re much more interested in keeping our customers happy and loyal than the audience for a premiere of any single show. For those of us who are hooked on our weekly dose of life at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, nothing comes closer to that goal than Mad Men.