Sky Atlantic got off to a fairly disappointing start on Tuesday night. The 8pm hour-long preview Let The Stories Begin drew a measly 147,000 viewers, before the much-publicized debut of Boardwalk Empireboosted viewership to 438,000 at 9pm, only for the night's ratings to drop to 225,000 for the premiere of Blue Bloods at 10.30pm.
Boardwalk Empire only narrowly squeezed into the Top 20 digital shows airing that evening; beating the return of The Vampire Diaries on ITV2 (431,000), but drawing even with CSI:NY on Five USA. The most popular multichannel show was BBC3's repeat of EastEnders with 767,000 at 10pm.
Of course, Sky Atlantic is only available in 10 million homes, so it was never going to compete with channels that are available to 90% of the UK's 26 million homes. That said, Sky were probably hoping for more exciting numbers, considering the amount of publicity it's thrown behind Sky Atlantic's exclusive HBO content.
So what next? Atlantic's free to all Sky subscribers for the next six months, so it has time to build its audience. But if 438,000 viewers is all their expensive launch night can muster, will Sky feel the pressure to appease advertisers by making Sky Atlantic available to their rivals within the year? If it was available on Virgin Media and BT Vision, ratings would undoubtedly increase and advertisers would be much happier.
Sky have enviably deep pockets, but they're still a business aiming to recoup a £150 million investment in HBO's back-catalogue over the next five years. Can they do it single-handed, by enticing their 10 million subscribers and attracting even more? Or will they have no choice but to make Atlantic more widely available if showcase purchases like Boardwalk are attracting less than 500,000 viewers? Mind you, Boardwalk Empire is a new show without a readymade audience, so it'll be interesting to see what happens when an established show like Mad Men makes it Sky debut later this year. The critically-adored AMC drama was hardly a roaring success for BBC4, but will its ratings be pitifully low on Sky or comparable?
In related news, did you know Boardwalk Empire's first two episodes are being repeated on Sky3 this 13 February at 9pm? It's airing as part of a "Free Weekend Pass" event from Sky, who are obviously hoping to hook some Freeview, Virgin and BT customers and make them consider getting Sky to continue watching. Do those Weekend Passes work, or do they just infuriate people who can't resist sampling Sky-exclusive contents, but just can't afford to subscribe for more?