HBO drama preems to largest aud in six years

With stellar reviews and debut ratings that rank among the best in HBO’s history, the pay cabler wasted little time in renewing “Boardwalk Empire” for a second season.

Pickup of “Boardwalk Empire” was hardly unexpected even before Sunday night’s premiere episode drew a hefty 4.8 million viewers, more than any of HBO series launch in six years. Combining the three Sunday telecasts, the 1920 Atlantic City Prohibition-era drama was watched by an audience of 7.1 million. That number should increase greatly when DVR replays, video on demand and additional linear telecasts are included for the rest of this week.

The “Boardwalk” debut numbers are also impressive in that it went up against the NFL game between the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts on NBC, which drew 23.1 million. Pro football tends to push around the rest of TV landscape, especially in the male demo. However, HBO said when looking at demos for “Boardwalk,” 55% of viewers were male, 45% female. Most of other broadcasters were in repeat mode, a day before the fall season officially began.

In March 2004, the debut of “Deadwood” scored a bigger audience, but the David Milch Western had the benefit of “The Sopranos” as a lead-in.

The “Boardwalk Empire” pilot, which cost $18 million — though a large chunk of that pricetag went toward building the on-stage boardwalk — was directed by Martin Scorsese, who acts as exec producer with creator Terence Winter, Tim Van Patten, Stephen Levinson and Mark Wahlberg. Show stars Steve Buscemi as the corrupt treasurer of the New Jersey seaside resort. Kelly Macdonald, Michael Pitt and Michael Shannon co-star.

“All the ingredients aligned for this one, from Mark Wahlberg and Steve Levinson’s initial pitch, to Martin Scorsese’s enormous contributions as director and executive producer, to the genius of Terry Winter and the expertise of Tim Van Patten, to a stellar cast led by Steve Buscemi,” said Michael Lombardo, HBO’s president of programming.

HBO has been quick to renew series that, like “Boardwalk Empire,” have been critically hailed and get off to encouraging starts. Net reupped “Treme” immediately after the first episode in April.

Cabler sent out the first six episodes to scribes in the summer and positive response built over the Internet, while HBO spent millions more on a marketing blitz leading up to Sunday’s debut.

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