If a big, expensive, “controversial” show premieres and no one watches it, did it truly premiere at all?
Unfortunately for ABC, the answer is yes. The struggling broadcaster probably wishes it could take a mulligan for “Of Kings and Prophets,” the sprawling, gory, sometimes explicit retelling of the story of Kings Saul and David of Israel that premiered in ABC’s cursed Tuesday 10 p.m. slot this week. The first episode drew just 0.8 percent of the advertiser-coveted 18-49 audience watching TV that night, and a mere 3.33 million total viewers in Nielsen’s live-plus-same-day ratings.
That’s the second-lowest premiere for a broadcast drama. Ever.
It's yet another lesson for the broadcasters: Chasing the success of big cable series like HBO's "Game of Thrones" by copying their aesthetic, then watering it down a skosh to comply with Standards and Practices, just doesn't work. “Of Kings and Prophets” was designed to be ABC’s answer to HBO’s “Game of Thrones” while also perhaps picking up some of the big (for cable) audience that loved the History Channel’s “The Bible” miniseries in 2013.
The series was expected internally to draw at least a little heat for the relatively high levels of sex and violence in a show based on the biblical tale of Saul, the first king of Israel, and David, the shepherd who replaced him. Outside of the obligatory pre-premiere finger-wag from the Parents Television Council, that heat didn’t materialize. People have to actually watch a show for controversy to arise.
Same-day ratings represent a shrinking percentage of TV’s audience, it’s true, but a broadcast premiere that low represents a complete rejection of a show. While cable series that debut small can pick up audience through word of mouth, that just doesn’t hold true for broadcast series in an age when the viewer's entertainment choices are limitless. (Literally: “Of Kings and Prophets” airs in the same slot as CBS’ fun crime procedural “Limitless.”)
But why didn’t anyone tune in to begin with? The show didn’t exactly lack for promotion. ABC ran 244 prime-time spots for the series on some channel or another and 1,460 spots in total, according to data from iSpot.tv — a healthy number for a midseason series.
One obvious reason is the time slot, which is a genuine graveyard at this point. Theoretically, “Prophets” could finish its 15-episode run — ABC doesn’t have much else on its bench — but it’s safe to assume that’s all the air it will get. That will bring the body count for that Tuesday 10 p.m. slot up to seven series in a little over three years. It’s difficult enough to get audiences to watch a new show, but when the show is airing in a slot people just aren’t used to watching, the level of difficulty increases geometrically.
Reviews, too, were less than glowing; the series has a score of 47/100 on Metacritic. Rejection from the criterati isn’t necessarily a death knell, but again, in a time when “quality TV” is overabundant, people are less likely to give a poorly reviewed show a chance. The people who did tune in to the first episode had mixed responses, per Twitter reaction analysis from Canvs.tv: 17.9 percent of the 2,879 tweets about the show (tracked by Nielsen) indicated the tweeter thought the show was “good”; 14.8 percent indicated “dislike.”
But most of ABC’s previous Tuesday misses weren’t exactly big swings. Not so with “Of Kings and Prophets,” which shot all 15 episodes in Cape Town, South Africa; had to re-shoot its pilot; brought aboard a new showrunner; got moved from fall to midseason and was shifted from a Sunday timeslot to its Tuesday home; and is rumored to have cost ABC (which is also producing the show through its studio arm, ABC Studios) north of $6 million an episode. Though South Africa does offer an incentive for foreign shows to shoot in the country, the South African Department of Trade and Industry says that incentive is capped at about 50 million rand ($3 million) per production.
The show, according to insiders, was a personal favorite of former ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee, who stepped down on Feb. 17 and has been replaced by Channing Dungey, who was running the drama department.
"This is not your parents' Sunday school, Bible show," Lee told reporters when unveiling ABC’s 2015-16 schedule last May.
Perhaps ABC execs didn’t see how poorly “A.D.: The Bible Continues,” NBC’s follow-on to “The Bible,” did last spring. Perhaps they thought "Of Kings and Prophets" was good enough to break through the glut of blood-and-mud shows that have also sought to ride the “Game of Thrones” wave this season.
Whatever the case, we can all be sure the Parents’ Television Council’s dire warning against the violent and sexually explicit content was a waste of everyone’s time.