“Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” the 1953 episode of I Love Lucy during which Little Ricky was born, drew 44 million viewers, a remarkable achievement considering there were barely 61 million viewers at the time. Of course, there were only three and a half networks in those days. (DuMont wasn’t dead, but it was coughing up blood, and it would go on the cart in 1956.) Today, there are more networks than you can count, or would care to count anyway, and really big audiences are not so big:
Read online entertainment news or even print entertainment magazines and you might think that HBO’s Game of Thrones and Girls were shows that most of the country was watching. But Thrones’ rating highs during season three were between 5.5 and 6 million viewers. The May 14th episode of NCIS (spoiler: Gibbs wins) racked up more than 18 million watchers. That same night, the shows Grimm, Body of Proof and Golden Boy all had as many or more people watching them as the Thrones high, and the latter two of those have been cancelled. Girls is even more of a niche item, with its high-water viewer mark around a million and usual audience about the size of Oklahoma City.
Consider, if you will, According to Jim, which ran eight seasons on ABC despite never getting mentioned by Big Media except in the context of “Is that still on?” At the end, it was drawing about three million.
Of course, HBO is happy to charge you a monthly fee for its services: the best ABC can do is make you pay through the nose for ESPN.
As for Girls and its OKC-sized audience, well, let it be known that the series in which I have the greatest interest hint: largely female cast pulls in Wichita-sized numbers most of the time.