The Last of Us Viewership Isn’t That Good

The overnight viewership for HBO’s The Last of Us episode 1, “When You’re Lost in the Dark,” is out. At first glance, these numbers look groundbreaking, especially considering the emphasis both HBO and the mainstream media are placing on them. 4.7 million views may seem impressive at a cursory glance, but with further investigation into the size of this IP, its fanbase, and the health of this franchise, and it’s compared to many other current and older shows, a clearer picture forms. This viewership threshold is not bad by any stretch of the imagination and will likely substantially increase once the consolidated views come out next week, but considering this franchise, its budget, the massive marketing campaign, and the near-total positive reception to it, these ratings are less than OK, much like the quality of the show itself.

Success or good audience interaction may be very different between franchises. It’s a matter of comparison, taking several factors into consideration, to see what qualifies as a success for that specific product. For example, Shazam! (2019) is considered a financial success with $363 million grossed at the worldwide box office only because of its relatively small budget of $80 million. Inversely, even though Black Adam (2022) made more money than Shazam! with a gross of $391 million, it is considered a failure because of its $200 million budget. Though they reached a similar threshold, success meant different things for both of these movies. The same is true for a television show like The Last of Us.

The Last of Us ratings

Before talking about what qualifies as a success for a television show, the size of the franchise must be the first factor. The Last of Us series has sold a total of 37 million copies in 10 years, making it one of the most-sold video game franchises in history, which is made even more impressive considering that this series only includes two games. The second Last of Us only accounts for 10 million of those copies. Despite the less-than-stellar reception to The Last of Us Part II and the near-immediate influx of used copies for sale after its release, the health of this franchise cannot be understated. As one of the biggest gaming franchises in recent history, with one of the most fleshed-out stories in gaming, an insanely large budget of $10 million per episode, and a well-known cast, a television adaptation should have received exceptional viewership.

The Last of Us’ ratings have broken the auspicious record of the second-highest premiered HBO show in the last decade, with House of the Dragon soundly beating it with 10 million overnight views. The show even surpassed the original Game of Thrones premiere of 2.2 million overnight views. However, Game of Thrones was nowhere near a juggernaut franchise at the time, with few people expecting much out of the show’s premiere. Additionally, when looking at HBO’s slate of shows from the last decade, not a single one besides House of Dragon comes from a massive IP with an already astoundingly large fanbase. Of course, something like The Last of Us destroyed the initial viewership of original shows that audience members had no idea what to expect from. Though not as blatant, this fluffing and misleading of The Last of Us’ viewership is similar to HBO’s announcement that Velma was the highest-viewed premiere of an adult animated show on HBO Max without taking into account the streaming services age or its only competition being the universally panned Santa Inc. So, this record-breaking is reasonable and entirely expected, but it does not discount the relative disappointment of these numbers.

The Last of Us ratings, HALO

The Game of Thrones franchise is in a completely different stratosphere than even The Last of Us, so a comparison to House of the Dragon would be unwarranted and inappropriate. The best comparison in recent memory that will afford the clearest picture and gauge for success is the Paramount+ adaptation of Halo. Halo is another juggernaut gaming franchise that has received 81 million sales across 15 games and 22 years. While no individual game in this franchise can compare to the original The Last of Us’ 27 million sales, Halo is still one of the biggest gaming franchises in the world. Similar to The Last of Us, Halo had a clear framework and story to adapt, which would have made the process incredibly simple and bound for success if Paramount had merely followed the framework and story provided. Lastly, both shows had the same budget of $10 million per episode.

Despite all these similarities, Halo had more working against it than The Last of Us did, the biggest being the difference in streaming platforms. Paramount+ only has 46 million global subscribers by the last report, making it a third-rate streaming service, whereas HBO Max has 92 million global subscribers. Although a portion of that is from Discovery+, and Warner Bros. is currently in a lawsuit regarding lying about the HBO Max subscription numbers, so these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Regardless, HBO Max has substantially more subscribers than Paramount+, meaning that any juggernaut IP content on HBO Max would reasonably eclipse anything on Paramount+. Halo also had another major factor working against it; the gaming side of the franchise is not healthy. Despite the massive backlash to The Last of Us Part II, it managed to sell 10 million copies. Halo was not so fortunate. The most recent addition to the Halo gaming franchise, Halo Infinite, only managed to sell 2 million copies.

The success of the Halo and The Last of Us shows should have been comparable if it weren’t for Halo coming into this square-off substantially on the back foot, with all these factors in consideration. Despite everything in this comparison stacked heavily in The Last of Us’ favor, Halo wins out in premiere overnight viewership with 4.9 million viewers. That is an utter tragedy for The Last of Us. The marketing campaign for The Last of Us was substantially higher, the franchise is healthier, it’s on a much bigger streaming service, and it is generally getting praised far more than Halo. Yet, Halo beat it. Funnily enough, Paramount+ also tried to spin Halo into a success, citing its record-breaking viewership on the platform without taking into account the contributing factors, just like HBO Max is doing with The Last of Us.

The Last of Us ratings, Arrow

Many other shows, old and new, that have no business even competing with The Last of Us achieved similar viewership thresholds. The CW, a platform that has never been financially profitable with a very specific target audience, managed to have several shows beat out this premiere. For example, Arrow, an adaptation of a third-rate and little-known superhero in an era where superhero television was not good, managed to nearly achieve the same threshold before audience members knew how good the show would end up being. Arrow received 4.14 million views for its premiere episode, which is astonishing considering the factors involved in that show. Similarly, The Flash, a show about an arguably larger superhero that was able to capitalize off the success of Arrow, managed to beat The Last of Us’ viewership with 4.8 million views.

Several other, more recent examples of shows that have no business competing with an IP like The Last of Us but received near-zero marketing — especially when compared to The Last of Us’ impressive marketing campaign — beat out The Last of Us’ viewership. The S.W.A.T. season 6 premiere got the same number of viewers as The Last of Us, achieving 4.7 million views, which is impressive considering the show and genre. NCIS: Hawai’i, the third-rate spin-off of NCIS that nobody is talking about, got 5.3 million views for the premiere of its new season. The main NCIS show, which is struggling due to the departure of its lead actor, Mark Harmon, also managed to accumulate 5.8 million views. Fire Country, a show that most people have never heard of, got more than a million more views than The Last of Us, receiving 5.9 million for its recent premiere. Blue Bloods season 13, a show long in the tooth, destroyed all of these numbers with 6.3 million views for its premiere. While many of these comparisons are much later than their initial pilot premieres, the budget of all these shows is dwarfed by The Last of Us’ $10 million per episode. HBO And Warner Bros. clearly expected this show to be much larger than it is. Even the recently ended Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall era of Doctor Who, which is at a 60-year low in terms of both viewership and popularity, has roughly equivalent overnight viewership to The Last of Us.

The Last of Us ratings

The success of any show is difficult to gauge; many factors need to be considered, and record-breaking is not always a sign of success. The Last of Us’ overnight viewership is not bad in the least, but it is far less than it should be when all the factors are taken into consideration, none more essential than its massive budget. Considering the astronomical marketing and the near-unanimous praise for this show as well, it should be much higher than this. Perhaps the praise of the show will affect its numbers going forward, raising episode 1’s consolidated numbers to a much higher level and increasing viewership week to week. However, this is not a strong start for The Last of Us and may be a sign that the general public is not interested, with only those heavily invested in the zombie genre — most of whom loved this first episode — its only supporters.

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