Sexually explicit drama low in ratings

HBO managed only 910,000 total viewers for the Sunday debut of “Tell Me You Love Me,” its sexually explicit drama focusing on three problem-plagued couples and their female therapist.

That number was 53% below what the cabler averaged the previous four weeks in the time period (original episodes of “Big Love” and the cancelled “John From Cincinnati”).

“Tell Me” ended up in triple digit percentages below the last four major drama premieres on HBO, all of which received powerhouse lead-ins: “John From Cincinnati” (3.4 million on June 10), “Big Love” (4.56 million on March 12, 2006), “Rome” (3.8 million on Aug. 28, 2005) and “Deadwood” (5.79 million on March 21, 2004).

Only 38% of the “Tell Me” viewers were adults 18-49; most of the viewers were 50 and older. But HBO is less concerned about that number: It doesn’t sell advertising, so the net doesn’t have to target its programming to young adults.

While other HBO series premieres were given strong launching pads, “Tell Me” had to settle for a poorly rated “Sopranos” rerun (only 519,000 total viewers) as lead-in. It’s a scenario HBO will face again in the next year, as it adjusts to life without tentpole dramas such as “Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under.”

The poor numbers for “Tell Me” were toxic to its lead-out show, the sixth-season premiere of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which managed only 1.17 million viewers. That’s the lowest season-premiere number ever for the Larry David comedy.

Previous low was the season-five premiere in Sept. 2005, which averaged 1.55 million viewers. Long wait between seasons clearly hurt “Curb.”

Among total viewers, the “Curb” premiere also was 56% below the previous four weeks in the time period, which sported original segs of “Entourage.”

While there’s no disguising the weak performance for the “Tell Me” premiere, it’s possible its total audience figures could be a bit skewed by the fact that HBO made the show widely available to its subscribers a week before the premiere via the net’s video-on-demand service.

Given the media buzz about the show’s explicit content, a decent number of viewers may have opted to check out the show before its official premiere.

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