How the heck did ‘Aquarius’ get renewed? A TV by the Numbers investigation

how-was-aquarius-renewed

“Aquarius” returns to NBC for its second season Thursday night. Which may have some of you asking, “Wait — ‘Aquarius’ got a second season?”

It did indeed. Despite meager on-air ratings and being shunted off to summer Saturdays for the end of its run in 2015, it is back for Season 2. Thursday’s two-hour premiere of the 1960s-set drama starring David Duchovny will run entirely commercial-free. The only pause will be a 55-second break in the second hour for local stations to tease their late newscasts.

NBC says the ad-free airing is “unprecedented” for broadcast TV. The network seems to like experimenting with “Aquarius,” which last season put the entire 12-episode run online for streaming after the show’s on-air debut. (Following that, NBC had the five most recent episodes online, as it does for most of its shows.)

Just how big were the streaming numbers? They must have been pretty strong, because the show’s linear ratings were not.

“Aquarius” premiered with a two-hour episode that averaged a 1.05 same-day rating in adults 18-49 — nothing special, but passable for a summer series. The four episodes after that, which aired in the 28-day window the entire season was available to stream, averaged 0.7.

NBC renewed the show on June 25, 2015, the day episode 5 debuted on-air and the final day of the streaming window. In the renewal announcement, NBC’s head of digital, Robert Hayes, cited “impressive view totals” along with “help[ing] us gain new insights into viewership patterns, binging behavior and social engagement, significantly expanding our knowledge of how people are watching our shows online.”

On air, the show ran twice more on Thursdays, drawing 0.5 and 0.4 for those episodes, before switching to Saturdays for the final five episodes. The Saturday run averaged a meager 0.2; for the season as a whole, “Aquarius” averaged a 0.5 same-day rating in adults 18-49 and 2.79 million viewers. The show typically added between 0.2 and 0.4 to its 18-49 total in Live +7 ratings, but both the same-day numbers and the DVR lift weren’t very good, even for summer.

So, it must have been the streaming numbers then, right? TV by the Numbers asked NBC if it could provide any data on how the streaming experiment performed.

Nope. NBC says it doesn’t typically discuss streaming numbers, just as Netflix and Amazon don’t. (Which is something, considering NBC’s head of research spent time with a roomful of reporters in January offering up third-party data about Netflix shows.)

At the time of the show’s renewal, NBC said the “Aquarius” premiere was the second most-viewed drama debut ever on NBC.com and the NBC App, trailing only “The Blacklist.” OK, fine — “The Blacklist” was a popular show in its first season, so one can presume it racked up some decent viewership online. But is that a million views, 500,000, 672? Only NBC knows.

Network head Bob Greenblatt did say after the streaming window ended that the overwhelming majority of the “Aquarius” audience watched via traditional means. The online audience was significantly younger, but it made up less than 10 percent of the total.

Perhaps the value of doing things like a binging experiment and a commercial-free airing (which will encompass three episodes, incidentally) is worth a trade-off of low on-air ratings.

The NBA has a de factor minor league called the D-League (the D is for Developmental). Some of the teams that are owned outright by NBA franchises have been known to engage in crazy experiments involving game tempo, pace and shot selection, as much to gather data for the parent club as to win games.

Maybe “Aquarius,” which airs in the lower-stakes summer environment, is NBC’s version of a D-League franchise, and the insights into viewer behavior NBC gained helped keep it on the air. It makes as much sense as any other reason the show is back.

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