Monday, August 14, 2017

Ratings Battle: Dark Shadows Vs Twin Peaks, 1991


Before FIREFLY came along, TWIN PEAKS was the poster child for great television shows cancelled too soon. The David Lynch/Mark Frost joint debuted to stellar ratings in the spring of 1989, but had lost much of its audience during the following 12 months. A television series hadn't lost its luster so quickly since BATMAN in the 1960s.

But there was another television show cancelled in 1991 that managed to hold a grip on its audience long after it left the airwaves: Dan Curtis' reboot of DARK SHADOWS. If you were to compose murder ballads for DARK SHADOWS (1991) and TWIN PEAKS, the verses would be almost identical. Both had incredibly strong openings, but fell victim to network uncertainty, shuffled schedules and multiple preemptions by news coverage of the Gulf War. Each production fought like hell to keep their audiences engaged, but were foiled by the inability of their respective networks (NBC for DARK SHADOWS, ABC for TWIN PEAKS) to provide them with ideal timeslots.

Those ballads, however simplified, are also accurate representations of what happened ... more or less. After reviewing the ratings for both programs, though, I was shocked to see that DARK SHADOWS, the little television show that could, had consistently stronger ratings in 1991 than its spiritual counterpart, TWIN PEAKS.

(Before I go on, let me stress that this is merely an amateur comparison of the ratings of two television shows. None of this is meant to suggest that these ratings make either show better or worse than the other. Good ratings do not automatically equal quality. In other words, there's no reason to fight.)

From the very start, the DARK SHADOWS "revival," as it would come to be called, was being compared to TWIN PEAKS, a show that arguably owed a debt of gratitude to the original 1960s gothic soap.

"NBC is expending a large amount of its attention on promoting 'Dark Shadows,'clearly hoping it can be the 'talked about' show this winter, the "Twin Peaks" of 1991, wrote Bill Carter for The New York Times in January, 1991. "Even the show's own producer, Dan Curtis, described it as a 'gimmick' show."

Unfortunately for TWIN PEAKS, though, when it broadcast its first episode of 1991, the series was already hip-deep in its creative nadir. "The Black Widow" aired Jan. 12 to approximately 10.3 million viewers, which is among the lowest ratings of any show broadcast that night. The following evening, DARK SHADOWS aired the first of its three-part debut, with 23.6 million people turning in. (A "thank you" to for providing a terrific archive of A.C. Nielsen ratings for 1991.)

Now, it's not entirely fair to compare a series premiere to a random installment of an established television series. But it's worth noting that TWIN PEAKS began the year on already unstable footing. And this footing would become more precarious throughout the rest of the season as it was shifted to different days and times before finally getting axed after its June 10 finale. By June, DARK SHADOWS had already been mothballed, having aired its last episode March 22 ... despite pulling in ratings consistently better than TWIN PEAKS.

A look at the ratings for both shows illustrates just how far TWIN PEAKS had fallen. NBC killed DARK SHADOWS after two months of episodes averaging a viewership of 12.5 million people. During its final months, TWIN PEAKS failed to reach even 10 million people, bottoming out for two consecutive weeks in 1991 with 7.4 million. The lowest-rated episode of DARK SHADOWS fared better than the highest rated episode of TWIN PEAKS.

So, when ABC brought TWIN PEAKS back from the dead for one week in June to air its final two episodes, its was an act of kindness. Even though the Lynch-directed finale was an amazing piece of work (and one of the best episodes of the entire series) it was incredibly unlikely that ABC would bring the show back for a third season. After all, at least once in April, TWIN PEAKS was the lowest-rated show broadcast by any network that night (April 18, 1991.) It finished out the year #100 on a list of 134 shows.

Below is a chart comparing the ratings between DARK SHADOWS and TWIN PEAKS during 1991. I've tried to group these episodes by their closest weekly counterparts, but schedule changes made that a challenge. Also, none of these ratings identify which episodes were preempted by news alerts.

KEY: A ratings point represents 921,000 TV households. Shares are the percentage of sets in use. Number of viewers is in millions.

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