Updated July 13, 2009: The New York Times has a piece where for the most part HBO looks to be attributing the successful DVD sales to the show doing very well on HBO when factoring the additional airings in. More info on that story here. Also, it seems that the DVD sales from The-Numbers.com (no relation) have been revised downward since I wrote the piece below, although the DVD has still sold amazingly well.
It's Not TV, It's GAY-ch-B-O?
I'm sure this is definitely a somewhat old theory and old thinking for anyone who began watching True Blood when it debuted last September. But I just started watching last week, so I was late to the game.
For weeks now, I’ve been marveling at the DVD sales for HBO’s True Blood. It’s sold more units and made more revenue than any other TV show this year. The accomplishment is pretty phenomenal, and I’m going to hit you with quite a few numbers to showcase just how phenomenal it is before furthering the speculation on why it has performed so phenomenally. If you’re not interested in the numeric comparisons, skip down to “Why is it selling so well?” section below.
A Comparative Look at Recent TV Show DVD Sales:
In six weeks of release it has sold almost 1.2 million units and grossed almost $41 million in revenue. It’s closest competition in 2009 so far this year comes from 24 season seven, which has also been available for six weeks but has sold less than 600,000 units and grossed just over $19 million. On a revenue basis, True Blood is the only DVD for the year in the top 20, top 30 or top 40 of DVD sales (it is currently 16th through the week ending June 28). 24 season seven is 46th by revenue.
To compare to some of its cable brethren, in four weeks of release Weeds season four (admittedly, not its best effort) had sold 432,000 DVDs and grossed almost $11 million.
Some will say it’s not fair to compare this year’s numbers because most of the 2008-2009 TV seasons have not yet been made available on DVD. That’s true, but it doesn’t matter. We can compare to the full calendar year of 2008 DVD sales when with about 17 weeks of sales (released on 9/2/08) The Office season four was the number one TV show DVD for the year selling 1.06 million units and grossing over $32 million. Because of the way we see data it’s not easy (or even usually possible) to see combined sales across multiple calendar years, but a show like Lost’s season four which went on sale with only a few weeks left in 2008 tracked closely with, but not quite as well as True Blood. After five weeks in release, Lost season four had sold over 976,000 units and grossed over $36 million. After five weeks, True Blood had sold almost 1.1 million DVDs and grossed almost $38 million in revenue.
True Blood is watched on TV by far fewer people than LOST or Grey’s Anatomy, but its DVD sales are better even than those shows and particularly a show like Lost is made for binging on by watching on DVD. You could argue that True Blood sold so well precisely because it’s on HBO, which is available in fewer than a third of the homes in the USA. But, it sells better – and much, much better – than other shows on HBO or on rival Showtime, too. True Blood even bested (particularly in unit sales) season 6, Part 2, the final season of The Sopranos. Though season six, part 1 of The Sopranos had more revenue with over $44 million in sales in 2007, True Blood sold 50% more units . 2007 also had with the best selling TV Show DVD for quite a while – Heroes season one, with almost 1.6 million units sold and $62 million in revenue in ~13 weeks of sales in 2007. I’m not sure it’s likely, but it’s certainly possible that True Blood season one overtakes Heroes season one.
For a lot of reasons, particularly reasons of exposure and awareness -- True Blood is decidedly NOT the cultural phenomenon The Sopranos was – I have found its DVD sales numbers particularly eye popping. What was driving the success? Was it spillover from the success of Twilight? There’s certainly a case to be made for that. After just over three months in release, Twilight has sold almost 9 million units and grossed over $160 million. By any metric, it’s the top DVD of 2009 so far and nothing else is close. But these numbers were so eye-popping that when it crossed a million units in sales, I decided I had to watch it so I could at least find out what the fuss was about.
Why are True Blood DVD Sales selling so well?
I think a lot of gay people are buying the DVDs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! The show uses fictional vampires as a metaphor for the way society treats gay people, at least here in the United States.
I was less than a few minutes into it – actually during the opening theme/credits sequence when I got my first idea the success was perhaps not driven by teenage Twilight loving girls. True Blood, uses the fictional liberation of vampires into society as a metaphor for how society deals with the gay community and it isn’t subtle at all. What I saw in the opening credits with the lit up sign displaying “God Hates Fangs”.
There are many overt references from vampires “coming out of the coffin” to the Bill Compton character pleading with his vampire brethren that if they flaunt their vampire ways, there will be a price to pay, to Vermont being the first state to legalize marriage between humans and vampires.
The show only has only one character in the ensemble who is gay, and there is more heterosexual sex on screen than probably any other show on television. But the plight of the fictional vampires is deliberately intended to closely resemble the real-life plight of gays in the United States. But it seems that True Blood creator Alan Ball isn’t just using the premise to mock right wing gay bashers even if there is plenty of that. The nature of the social commentary seems far broader. A particular focus seems to being paid to whether “mainstreaming” True Blood speak for Vampires acting in ways that fit in with everyone else is a better route to take than flamboyantly flying your vampire flag.
I suspect that a lot of the fuel driving DVD sales of True Blood is interest and strong word of mouth within the gay community. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! From talking to a few people and watching the show, it seems more likely to me than Twilight spillover – True Blood doesn’t seem like the type of show that would be heavily embraced by teenage girls. But it’s very anecdotal, and there is absolutely no data out there that can prove or disprove the theory. Whatever the reasons though, the DVD sales are a great success story for HBO. The ratings story isn’t so bad either.
Nielsen Ratings for True Blood
True Blood took an interesting path rarely seen – one of steadily increasing ratings. True Blood’s season one premiere last September bowed to 1.4 million viewers in its initial airing. The season one finale averaged 2.45 million in its initial airing. And tied in with very robust DVD sales, the season two premiere almost beat out the season one premiere by 100%! Some claimed the numbers were more robust because HBO was offering a freeview weekend over cable and satellite systems, but the results in weeks following the season two premiere indicate that isn’t the cause. Here’s a table of the ratings or at least viewer numbers for True Blood (several episodes from season one are missing):
|1||The First Taste||9/14/2008||1.8|
|1||Escape From Dragon House||9/28/2008||1.8|
|1||Burning House of Love||10/19/2008||2.1|
|1||The Fourth Man in the Fire||10/26/2008||2.1|
|1||To Love is to Bury||11/16/2008||2.7|
|1||You'll Be the Death of Me||11/23/2008||2.5|
|2||Nothing But the Blood||6/14/2009||3.7|
|2||Keep This Party Going||6/21/2009||3.4|
*initial airing only
The numbers are nowhere near as good as the halcyon days of HBO when Sex and the City and The Sopranos were both airing. The Sopranos in its heyday routinely drew more than 10 million viewers and its season three premiere had over 13 million viewers. Still, True Blood is the best news HBO has had since The Sopranos faded to black.
But the numbers that matter to HBO aren't Nielsen viewing numbers. The most important numbers are the number of paying subscribers HBO has and what kind of revenue that is netting them monthly. DVD sales, especially like those from True Blood are gravy. But still they are mostly a rounding error. HBO doesn't suffer any recompense for DVD viewing or On Demand viewing either, and while I sometimes make fun of advertiser supported networks for bringing up multiple airings of shows, there's no such stigma with HBO where there's no advertising revenue impact as a result of DVR, and On Demand and there are no real opportunity costs issues with multiple airings. At least twice so far in season two, HBO has gone over 5 million viewers for True Blood when both Sunday night viewings were factored in.
All HBO needs to worry about is having happy customers, and if its customers are happy watching on their DVRs or On Demand, HBO is happy too. At any rate, having great DVD sales and increasing viewing for True Blood is a great outcome for HBO.
If Season Two’s DVD Sales Are As Good As Season One’s…
…even HBO will probably issue a press release. So far HBO has been notoriously Ladainian Tomlinson-esque and simply flipping the ball to the referee after scoring rather than going with the heavily choreographed end zone dances. There has been no chest thumping about the DVD sales and no chest thumping about the ratings improvements. It’s odd because most networks will chest thump over just about anything. They’re more like the wide receiver who goes into histrionics over catching a five yard pass.
In the PR world of television, even beating a rerun of Legally Blonde 2 is chest-thump worthy. HBO definitely gets the “TVbytheNumbers Ladainia Tomlinson Award”.
One thing even HBO can’t know for sure is how many people bought the DVDs and then subscribed to HBO just because of True Blood. So we can’t know how much, if any, the recent increases in viewership can be attributed to new people signing up for HBO just because of True Blood. But figure some of them are, and figure they won’t be as likely to buy the DVDs if they are already subscribing. Even maintaining season one DVD sales numbers with season two would be a great accomplishment, but increasing them would be a major league big deal. However interest in the show still seems to be growing. It will be interesting to see how things progress from here.
What do I think of the show?
What I think of the show doesn’t matter, but since someone is bound to ask… Vampires aren’t really my thing, so in that regard I definitely wound up liking it more than I thought I would. But mostly I thought season one was OK, but not great. There were many episodes (and not just the first four) where there were several minutes or more per episode where I just wasn’t engaged at all. But, I found the last few episodes of season one were much better.
To use HBO comparisons, I didn’t find it in the league of The Sopranos first few seasons (particularly the first two) or any season of The Wire. I also didn’t enjoy it as much as the first couple of seasons of Dexter though I’d say I probably did enjoy it about as much as the third season of Dexter. But again, I found that season one finished strong and that the last few episodes were much better, as was the season two premiere (as of this writing,) I have yet to watch the second and third episodes of season two). I’ll stick with it for a while. Partly because I enjoy it, but alsobecause there’s more interest in its ratings than any other premium cable show.