‘Outlander’ season 3: Could the later start date help or hurt series’ ratings?

Outlander -How does a hiatus impact a prestige series? Can it help it or hurt it? We’ve spoken about many facets of the “Outlander” season 3 premiere date being moved to fall, but one of the most interesting ones is what this could mean for the show’s immediate success in the ratings.

Before diving far down this rabbit hole, the first thing that we should caution is that within this article, we’re speaking entirely about live+same day viewer figures. We know that this is almost arbitrary for a show like “Outlander” that is so time-shifted and watched in various forms, but we have to have a control sample to compare it to some other examples of series that we’re going to be talking about here. We’re also speaking here about total viewers versus the 18-49 demographic, given that demo ratings aren’t as significant for a network like Starz.

In thinking about how “Outlander” ratings could be impacted by airing a good year and a half after the previous season premiered, we thought it would be useful to look at some other series that are all critically-acclaimed, and also had some rather-large hiatuses during their run of more than a year between episodes.

“Breaking Bad” – The Bryan Cranston series went off of the air for over a year between 2010 and 2011, and the average viewer count went from 1.5 million to right around 1.9 million between seasons 3 and 4. The ratings surged even more in season 5, but we credit Netflix for that far more than a lengthy hiatus.

“Sherlock” – The show aired its fourth-season premiere earlier this year, and while it impressed with 8.1 million viewers for “The Six Thatchers,” that still was down 1.1 million from the ratings for “The Empty Hearse,” its last regular series premiere, a few years before that.

“Homeland” – a great current example. Season 6 is currently averaging 1.16 million viewers, a drop of more than 20% from the fifth season, which premiered a good year and four months before.

“Mad Men” – There was a good year and a half between any episodes of the show airing on AMC due to complicated negotiations and other factors. Here, the delay didn’t hurt at all. Season 4 of the show averaged 2.3 million viewers; meanwhile, season 5 brought in on average around 2.6 million.

“Fargo” – Probably the most negative of the examples we have. Season 2 averaged 1.3 million viewers, down more than 30% from the season 1 average a year and a half before. There is a caveat here in that the show didn’t actually have the same story in season 2, and featured an entirely new cast.

The takeaway from all of these numbers is that there is no takeaway. Sometimes, shows getting a long break in between seasons allows viewers the chance to catch up. However, there are also times where shows either lose viewers or at least lose people watching live because of the long wait / interests forming in other things. It’s hard to know which way the needle will fall for a show like “Outlander.” Unless viewers have Starz, it’s challenging for them to discover new audiences out there; yet, it’s happened with “Game of Thrones,” so it’s possible. You shouldn’t assume that the hiatus will mean that the show will lose people, but it also may not lead to a significant boost, either.

We’ve long said that the bigger ratings factor here could be a move to Sundays, given that this is a change that benefited “Power” greatly (though it hasn’t seemed to help “Black Sails” much at all). For season 2, “Outlander” averaged close to 1.1 million viewers, a slight increase from season 1. Our hope would be to see it get up to 1.3 or 1.4 million in the new spot, but this could depend on everything from competition to marketing to the show’s more casual fans. We’ll say that in looking ahead, there are some scheduling benefits for “Outlander” this fall. There are no huge network TV hits airing at 9:00 p.m. Sunday nights. There may be a threat from NFL football and “The Walking Dead,” but we anticipate the crossover audience being smaller here than for a show like “Game of Thrones.” Plus, “Outlander” will premiere before the zombie drama by at least a couple of weeks if it stays in September.

What do you think the ratings implication of an “Outlander” push to fall will be? Share your thoughts in the comments, and head over here to see some recent news items regarding the show and South Africa filming. (Photo: Starz.)

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