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Tiny Crowd for ‘Twin Peaks’ Tests Value of Selling Subscriptions Vs. Pop Culture Sizzle

Twin Peaks” pushed the boundaries of TV when it first arrived on ABC in 1990. The sequel series that wraps its 18-episode run on Showtime tonight is proving to be an experimental effort in different ways.

After much fan-demonium in the lead up to the May 21 premiere, the 26-years-later revival of the David Lynch-Mark Frost drama has garnered a surprisingly meager weekly audience. Yet Showtime is calling it a win in that “Twin Peaks” drove a record number of people to sign up for a free trial of the Showtime standalone streaming service.

From Showtime’s perspective, the true measure of “Twin Peaks’ ” success won’t come until they know how many of those people decide to stick around beyond the 30-day free window. CBS Corp.’s third and fourth quarter earnings reports will offer clues later this year. CBS’ cable earnings for the second quarter already indicated a “Twin Peaks” bounce, with revenue up 7% and operating income up 11% year-over-year. International licensing of the series has also been strong, given Lynch’s following.

But the lack of live ratings traction for “Twin Peaks” raises questions about the business rationale for the industry-wide mania for reboots and revivals. The promise that vintage titles will bring a built-in audience is seemingly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of programming choices, new and old, that viewers have at their fingertips. For Showtime’s investment in “Twin Peaks” to really pay off, viewers will have to be intrigued by enough of Showtime’s other programming to keep shelling out $11 a month.

“Twin Peaks: The Return” had the benefit of a long lead time for whetting fans appetites with teasers, cryptic clues and other viral marketing opportunities. The episodes have generated largely positive reviews from critics who have heaped praise on Lynch’s direction, and credited the original 1990-91 series with paving the way for the cinematic standard of TV series today.

Yet with all of that, the series opened to about 620,000 total viewers in Nielsen’s live-plus-3 ratings — a paltry number that was a shock given the hoopla surrounding its return.

For the season to date, the 16 “Twin Peaks: The Return” installments that have aired to date are averaging a mere 372,000 viewers in live plus 3. With DVRs, streaming and on-demand viewing beyond the first three days factored in, the average viewership grows to about 2 million per episode, according to Showtime. That’s a more respectable number, albeit far short of Showtime hits such as “Homeland,” “Ray Donovan,” and “Shameless.”

Showtime emphasized that the majority of “Twin Peaks” viewing came via streaming and on-demand platforms that can be hard to translate into traditional ratings. But the live turnout demonstrates that “Twin Peaks” did not rise to the level of can’t-miss appointment TV. To date, the first episode has garnered 4.3 million viewers across all platforms. Of all Showtime series, “Twin Peaks” has the biggest proportion of its audience come from the cabler’s authenticated and standalone streaming platforms.

Still, the eye-popping numbers delivered by HBO’s “Game of Thrones” this summer (an average of 10.2 million viewers in live-same-day) proves that viewers will turn out on a weekly basis for live linear airings of shows with serious pop culture sizzle.

“Twin Peaks: The Return” was envisioned from the start as a limited series event, not a recurring series with a shot at a renewal. Showtime CEO David Nevins told reporters last month that there have been no discussions with Lynch and Frost about producing more episodes. Industry sources reinforce that there has been none of the usual movement that happens on productions that may be returning. Nevins said they agreed to hold off on any discussions about the future of the franchise until after “The Return” finished its full run.

Tonight’s finale is expected to bring some closure to the stories of the key characters in the “Twin Peaks” saga. But in true Lynchian fashion, the business question of how Showtime’s investment in “The Return” has impacted the premium cabler’s bottom line is one that defies easy answers.

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