Was Twin Peaks: The Return Worth It for Showtime?

Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks: The Return. Photo: Showtime

The reviews were great, the media buzz often deafening, but the hard truth about Twin Peaks: The Return is this: Showtime’s limited-series revival of David Lynch’s 1990s masterpiece was a ratings disappointment. Despite decades of anticipation and a preexisting fan base for a show, which first aired when most Americans had access to less than three dozen TV channels (and no internet), a mere 2 million viewers on average watched or streamed the summer series during its three-and-a-half month run. That’s half the multi-platform audience of a nascent Showtime hit such as Billions (roughly 4.6 million viewers) or the first season of the network’s critically acclaimed but hardly a blockbuster The Affair (4.1 million). This almost certainly wasn’t the sort of response Showtime execs were hoping for when they green-lit the Twin Peaks revival back in 2014. And yet, despite the softer-than-expected numbers, the network likely doesn’t regret its decision to spend the summer hangin’ with Agent Cooper. Here are three reasons why:

For premium channels such as Showtime, buzz and critical acclaim are massively important metrics.
Even in the age of streaming, ratings are crucial to the business model of networks such as ABC or FX since a big chunk of their revenue comes from advertisers (and advertisers want to know people are watching their commercials). But a network like Showtime doesn’t live or die by how many people watch any one of its series. Instead, its goal is to attract new subscribers while convincing existing customers not to cancel. It does this by making sure subscribers feel as if they’re getting their money’s worth — that there’s enough programming to merit the monthly fee. Programs that have the aura of Must-See TV around them, even if not that many folks are actually seeing them right now — boost the brand of an HBO or Showtime almost as much as ones that get lots of viewers but not as much media or Emmy love.

Case in point: The first season of HBO’s Veep had an average multi-platform audience of just 3.9 million viewers back in 2012, nearly half the tune-in for that same year’s inaugural run of its Aaron Sorkin drama, The Newsroom. But Veep cleaned up at the Emmys and generated endless raves about almost every episode, while most of the chatter about Newsroom was about how … not great it was. HBO kept Newsroom around for three seasons because, well, Aaron Sorkin. In the end, the show with the lower ratings ended up being one of the network’s signature comedies while the higher-rated drama ended after just 25 episodes. Fact is, while networks such as HBO or Showtime certainly want to have a few shows on their roster that attract a relatively large audience, and launching a blockbuster such as Game of Thrones has its perks, shows that get people talking and critics kvelling can have just as much merit as most ratings “hits.” Twin Peaks started generating positive buzz for Showtime the moment it was announced in 2014 and will likely continue doing so all the way through until next September’s Emmy Awards.

Doing risky fare boosts Showtime’s credibility with audiences and the creative community.
While Twin Peaks: The Return often gets lumped with TV’s current wave of reboots and reunions, Showtime’s decision to hand Lynch tens of millions to revive his long-dormant series was not the obvious cash grab that, say, Netflix’s Fuller House represented. Sure, the network was bringing back a property with an established fan base and widespread name recognition (at least among baby-boomers and Gen-Xers). While Showtime execs figured those two factors might encourage sampling of the revival, they were all too aware Lynch was unlikely to spend a few years of his life on a nostalgia play. His movie follow-up to the series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, made it clear he wasn’t interested in giving audiences another serving of the soapy cherry pie he and Mark Frost served up for ABC back in the 1990s. Lynch even gave Showtime chief David Nevins a very easy out early in the preproduction process when he kinda sorta quit the show due to concerns over an inadequate budget. Nevertheless, Nevins persisted. He let Lynch move forward with something he had to know deep down wasn’t going to set ratings records. In the end, Twin Peaks probably didn’t meet even Showtime’s modest expectations. But the network’s commitment to supporting Lynch’s vision sent a clear signal to Showtime subscribers: This is a network that’s okay with weird stuff, that lets creators see their visions through.

Of course, Showtime is hardly unique in offering such creative freedom. HBO has always been known as an artist’s haven, and Netflix has one-upped its legacy linear rivals by remaining (mostly) hands-off when it comes to day-to-day production decisions made by its showrunners. FX, AMC, Amazon, Hulu, and even TBS have also become known for their commitment to the edgy and experimental. The fact that so many outlets are now willing, even eager, to let creators go out on a limb makes it all the more vital for a network such as Showtime — which doesn’t have the deep, deep pockets of some of its competitors — to underscore its unflinching support for audacious efforts such as Peaks. When Lynch last spring told Variety’s Maureen Ryan his relationship with Showtime was “solid gold,” you could almost imagine Nevins printing the quote out and sending it to every major agent in Hollywood. Money matters (a lot) when series creators shop their projects, but knowing a network will stand behind their vision — and do all it can to get eyeballs in front of it — is often the deciding factor in determining where a sought-after project lands.

Showtime’s unflinching support for Peaks, as well as a relentless marketing campaign that began almost the moment the show was announced, will end up a not-insignificant calling card for Nevins as he battles HBO and Netflix in pursuit of ideas.

The show will remain a valuable asset for years.
Despite that cliff-hanger ending, Showtime execs have long stated they envisioned the new Peaks as a one-shot limited-series event. So unlike NBC’s Will & Grace revival, which has already been picked up for a second season, Showtime wasn’t hoping to establish a new franchise that would live on for several years. This fact makes the soft initial numbers for Peaks redux much easier to take. Though Showtime and Lynch haven’t entirely slammed the door on another batch of episodes, Twin Peaks: The Return exists as a finished project, a complete work of art ready to be consumed by audiences at any time on Showtime’s multiple linear and digital platforms. Like the full series runs of Sex and the City still capturing new eyeballs on HBO Go and HBO Now, or the countless 1990s sitcoms millennials and Gen-Z viewers have “discovered” on Netflix (how you doin’, Friends?), Peaks will continue attracting new viewers for the foreseeable future.
It’ll be a brand-name property Showtime’s marketing whizzes will be able to point to as they woo new subscribers: “Sign up for Showtime Anytime, and watch the show critics raved about!” (Plus, the show is a global property, with a big international fan base already being monetized by the network’s distribution team).

Now, based on the modest linear numbers for Peaks, the show probably won’t be as effective driving digital subscriptions as Games of Thrones or even Showtime’s own Homeland. But early evidence suggests there are plenty of folks who’ve just been waiting a beat before beginning a Peaks binge. While the average episode of Peaks has been seen by 2 million viewers, the first hour of the show has been watched by 4 million viewers, Showtime says. Even if some of those 4 million gave up after the out-there pilot, it’s a safe bet many continued watching — and that a significant number of new viewers will jump in for the first time now that the complete series is available to stream. Die-hard Peaks-philes may have wanted to see each episode the minute it aired, but for a generation of viewers accustomed to the Netflix/Amazon all-at-once model, Lynch’s vision is probably better suited to a binge-watch.

It’s worth noting that the only reason there’s any real debate about the success or failure of Twin Peaks: The Return is because ratings data for the show’s linear run is widely available via Nielsen, and Showtime has released information about audience consumption via non-linear platforms. If Lynch had sold the show to Netflix, Amazon or Hulu, the media conversations revolving around the show would deal with how many Emmys it might win in 2019, or how wondrous a thing it is that Peak TV lets filmmakers such as Lynch and Frost realize their visions in a way network TV in the 1990s quite couldn’t. That’s because those streaming outlets don’t let anyone know who’s watching or when. Those of us in the media declare Stranger Things or The Handmaid’s Tale “hits” using the same logic as frustrated parents trying to justify decisions to questioning kiddies: because we said so. But Showtime’s business model isn’t all that different from Netflix’s: Both measure success by subscriber growth and retention, not by who watches within a narrow window of time. Twin Peaks had the same mostly rapturous reviews as the aforementioned streaming series. It set social media ablaze on nights episodes aired, particularly when it first premiered. And entertainment websites like Vulture couldn’t stop writing about it. If you put aside old-school metrics, and play by the new rules of Peak TV, Twin Peaks: The Return was far from a disappointment. It was the smash TV hit of the summer.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Was It Worth It for Showtime?