Sons of Anarchy creator and executive producer, former twitter lightening rod and friend to TV by the Numbers Kurt Sutter writes about the ratings for Sons of Anarchy. Sutter correctly notes that shows entering their fourth season usually don't add new viewers. He also notes SOA's huge year over year growth between the first and second seasons and that the live viewing was down between season three and season two, but the DVR viewing increased to the point where on a Live+7 basis, viewing was about the same in season 3 as season two.
Sutter quite reasonably figures it will probably be more of the same as far as the season four ratings versus season three, but then wonders if there's a wildcard: Netflix viewing.
Sutter has gotten a lot of anecdotal feedback from viewers who have found the show on Netflix and wonders if those catching up on Netflix will now make SOA appointment television, or at least make a date with their DVRs. To rally the troops Sutter offers up that if the premiere (Tuesday, September 6 at 10p on FX) is up 10% with adults 18-49 and total viewers that he'll randomly reward one of his Twitter followers (even though he is no longer "using" his account is still active) and one of his blog readers, He'll fly them to Los Angeles, put them up in a reasonable hotel and invite them to his house for a private viewing party of the tenth episode of season four of SOA, hosted by his lovely wife Katey Sagal, who also stars in SOA as matriarch/"Old Lady" Gemma Who doesn't want to see that happen!? I want to see that happen. I do. But..
First the good news: the notion of viewing being fueled between seasons isn't unfounded. There's not any hard data to correlate anything to Netflix viewing, but there are examples of people catching up between seasons and making shows appointment television in ways that benefit the TV ratings. It happened in the 9 month gap between seasons one and two of Sons of Anarchy. That was pre-Netflix availability but DVD was a bigger deal even a couple of years ago than it is today. Recently, albeit at a much smaller scale, there was Breaking Bad which after a long hiatus had record ratings in its season four premiere on a live+SD basis -- and it isn't even available on Netflix.
The biggest example of viewing in another channel driving ratings is probably the resurgence of NCIS once USA Network began airing the heck out of old episodes. But the success of another USA syndicated show, Law & Order: SVU is one thing that suggest Netflix and TV ratings aren't very intertwined. All past seasons of 'SVU' are available for streaming on Netflix, and the USA telecasts and marathons still do extremely well in the ratings, often better than a lot (probably most, really) of original scripted cable programming.
Netflix has over 20 million subscribers in the US (but that probably reaches more than 40 million people since on average there's more than one person per household), but not all of Netflix subscribers stream and of those who do, less than half stream TV shows according to a recent Nielsen survey. Moreover (and for people who want to party with the Sutters, this is probably not great news) SOA's third season won't even be available on DVD until August 30, and presumably won't show up on Netflix for a little while after that.
If Netflix fuels any viewing for SOA's premiere it will either be from Netflix viewers who couldn't wait for S3 to be available on Netflix and bought the third season DVD and then watched the whole season within a week and then watch the premiere on FX (on Tuesday, September 6 at 10pm)... Or it will have to be from viewers who loved the first two seasons and are willing to bypass the third season altogether and jump straight into the fourth season on FX. Some of each is possible, but I don't think that adds up to much in terms of L+SD or L+7 viewing of the premiere on FX on Tuesday, September 6 at 10pm.
Sutter didn't specify whether he meant the Live+7 or Live+SD ratings, but those hoping to party with the Sutters should root for that to be the case. We're Live+Same Day-istas here at TV by the Numbers and for a pretty simple reason: all viewing doesn't count equally because all viewing doesn't pay equally. The Live+7 numbers do give a better idea of overall popularity, but advertising supported basic cable isn't a popularity contest, it's an ad sales contest.
My guess, and I hope I'm wrong because I want a couple of you to get Sutter-ized, is that based on age alone and typical trends that SOA will drop ~10 percent in L+SD viewing in its premiere. Note: that sort of drop still represents great numbers -- as good or better than pretty much every cable scripted show its age not named True Blood.
Sons of Anarchy premiered to a 2.1 adults 18-49 rating and 4.1 million viewers (L+SD) in its third season premiere last September. The season premiere and finale of season two each scored a 2.3 L+SD adults 18-49 rating. The season three finale scored a 1.8 adults 18-49 rating and 3.6 million viewers L+SD and saw lows in mid October that dipped to a 1.3 adults 18-49 rating and 2.6 million viewers.
I hope my guess is wrong and that a couple of you lucky anarchists get to party with the Sutters.
I'm both an SOA and Sutter fanboy and I've seen the first three episodes of season four (which, in case you missed it, premieres September 6 at 10p ET on FX) and loved them.