It's true that the ratings don't matter for HBO like they matter for the networks that sell advertising But HBO will be looking at the ratings for Boardwalk Empire and so will all the media covering TV. And both HBO and the media will be looking at that much more than they did for True Blood for a very simple reason: HBO spent a lot of money on Boardwalk Empire. With a pilot that cost between $18 million and $30 million* depending on how you talk to and a marketing budget of $10 million, it was a pretty big bet for HBO.
*This includes the expense of creating the boardwalk set which will wind up being amortized across all the episodes.
Months before the premiere HBO was out championing that it had better success selling Boardwalk Empire out of the gate than any other show in its history. That may matter more for Boardwalk Empire than it's likely to matter for NBC's The Event. FlashForward had wide international distribution and at least initially rated very well abroad, but we saw how that worked out.
But HBO isn't ABC, and Boardwalk Empire isn't FlashForward and while we in the U.S. haven't shown a lot of love recently for period pieces, even well done period pieces on HBO (think Deadwood and Rome), the international audiences seem to eat them up. The Pillars of the Earth, which aired on Starz over the summer just premiered to an average audience of over 5 million people in Spain.
Keep in mind that True Blood didn't always take a big bite out of the ratings. Sure, now it routinely averages over 5 million viewers and around a 3.0 rating with adults 18-49 in each episodes premiere telecast, but when it premiered in September 2008, the initial telecast of the premiere scored just 1.44 million viewers and a 0.7 rating with adults 18-49 in live plus same day DVR viewing.
I could just be imagining it, but given the big production expense and the big marketing expense, there has got to be me more pressure on Boardwalk Empire to perform well out of the gate. I'm still waiting to be convinced that the good old U.S. of A. is ready to embrace a period piece. I personally am a fan of them - I loved Rome and am a big Mad Men fan, but I'm well aware that my personal viewing doesn't always correlate to the broader viewing community!
I'm betting Boardwalk Empire does OK in its premiere telecast (and HBO will be sure to include all the additional telecasts and DVR viewing when they add it all up). I'll guess 3.5 million and a 2.0 rating for the premiere. I won't be surprised if it does even better.
But I also won't be surprised if Boardwalk Empire is exactly the opposite of True Blood. True Blood's premiere garnered its worst ratings of the entire series. Boardwalk Empire may see its best numbers in its premiere.