Has Britain Fallen Out Of Love With Mad Men?

Game of Thrones got five times as many viewers as Mad Men on Sky Atlantic this week

Despite a month-long publicity drive that saw Don Draper et al on the front page of every magazine and newspaper, Mad Men debuted to rather disappointing viewing figures last Tuesday. The cast of the 1960s advertising drama need no excuse for a spot of day-time drinking, but an average audience of 70,000 for one of the channel’s most prestigious shows may have left many Sky Atlantic execs joining them in reaching for the scotch.

The advertising agency drama peaked at just under 100,000 viewers for the double-bill premiere ‘A Night To Remember’, which is a staggeringly small number of people when you consider that 10 million households shell out for Sky in one form or another, indeed we had to double check we’d read that figure correctly. Sky have argued that such ratings represent a 300% increase on the normal audience in that time-spot, but the reality is that Mad Men is one of the new channel’s cornerstones and they will have been hoping for better. Early figures for Tuesday’s third episode, in which Betty returned (presumably from the pie shop), aren’t much better..

Some may argue that fans who enjoyed the show on BBC4, will simply find other ways of accessing the content rather than paying Murdoch for the pleasure, but if streaming shenanigans are the root of the problem, then it seems to be a factor affecting the AMC-based drama more than any of Sky Atlantic’s other offerings.

Game of Thrones, enjoyed a more modest advertising campaign (which admittedly, isn’t saying much) but attracted five times as many viewers on Monday for the launch of its second series. Over half a million people tuned in to watch the fantasy drama based on the novels of George RR Martin and this figure is in line with Sky Atlantic’s other big beast, Boardwalk Empire, which debuted in 2011 with nearly 450,000 viewers. Game of Thrones has been the most successful of the channel’s shows in its first year (with The Borgias beating the prohibition caper to second) but at this rate, Mad Men may struggle to oust Blue Bloods and Mildred Pierce, which came fourth and fifth respectively. The premiere of Mad Men season 5 also broke records in the States when it aired a few days before the British launch, so why has the show performed so badly in the UK?

One of the most worrying things for Sky bosses will have been the statistic which shows that half of last week’s viewers didn’t bother staying for the second episode, a trend which suggests that much of the audience were new to the show and were attracted by the publicity drive, but decided that it wasn’t the show for them and zoned out..

“Mad Men will never attract big audiences. It is not a show for the masses,” argues noted TV critic Roy Greenslade in his column for The Evening Standard. “The majority of Mad Men viewers.. tend to be educated and affluent. In other words, they read serious newspapers with seriously glossy magazines. Though they are not easily identifiable as a group, they form part of an elite minority, and Mad Men is something of a badge that sets them apart. It is intelligent programming without distracting laughter tracks and jokes composed in some kind of Hollywood laughter factory.”

This may or may not be true, but it does seem clear that Sky’s ploy to snap up the booze-sodden show from the Beeb (with which it enjoyed healthy but not spectacular viewing figures around the 400,000 mark) in a bid to attract terrestrial viewers has failed. The fact that Game of Thrones and other more mainstream shows such as Blue Bloods are beating it also suggests that Mad Men may be too snobby for it’s own good. “Mad Men is simply one of those shows with miniscule ratings but massive cultural cachet. Like The Wire, The West Wing or The Killing, it appeals to a vocal minority” argued Michael Hogan in The Daily Telegraph.

Cynics may suggest that the acclaim for Mad Men represents an archetypal style over substance success story, while others will argue that it’s high-brow entertainment which most people can’t be bothered with. Whichever view you subscribe to, it seems clear that the notion of wise-talking Manhattan ad execs from yesteryear hasn’t travelled from America as well as other broader premises. Nevertheless, the truth is that even if there was little from it’s previous outings on the Beeb to suggest that Mad Men would score high ratings on this side of the pond, Sky Atlantic had to buy it up if they wanted to stay true to their mantra of showing the finest drama available. Whether they’ll be taking a financial hit on it is another matter entirely..