When you see the top of today’s TV show ratings, it’s easy to forget there was once a time when huge hits like Game of Thrones and Empire instead seemed like huge risks.
In fact, if you had bet in 2009 that a bloody epic about dragons and wolves or a high-stakes soap opera about a record label would become two of the biggest TV shows of the 2010s, you would have made a lot of money.
But maybe the biggest surprise of all happened when the CW greenlit a series based on a comic book character that no TV viewer has even taken seriously before.
We’ll look at Riverdale‘s rave-worthy ratings record in a second. But first, let’s step back and appreciate just how crazy it is that a show about Archie Andrews, maple syrup, and murder ever got on TV in the first place.
PEP Comics Poster Boy Meets Breaking Bad
When Riverdale first premiered in January 2017, no one was sure if it would become a sleeper hit or a tone-deaf trainwreck.
As a twisted, soapy, bloody reimagining of the fresh-faced teen hijinks depicted over 75 years of mostly-pure Archie comics, the CW was clearly hoping to channel the ghost of Gossip Girl.
The first step was updating the story to match the modern zeitgeist. These days, instead of hot dogs, garage bands, and bikinis, the modern versions of Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica are embroiled in sex, drugs, statutory rape, blood feuds, torture, and murder.
Now, on paper, this dark reboot of a beloved and wholesome teen icon might sound strange. But there was a precedent.
First, subversive takes on the Archie-verse have been building buzz on comics shelves for years. Most notably, the critically-acclaimed zombie survival horror Afterlife with Archie sees idyllic Riverdale get overrun by the undead.
Second, series producer Greg Berlanti has a lot of experience with twists and teens. Once a writer and producer on Dawson’s Creek, Berlanti now oversees “the Arrowverse,” the CW’s interlocking universe of DC superhero TV shows like Arrow and The Flash. If you need a man who can mix teen hormones with cliffhanger action, Berlanti is a safe bet.
But the real saving grace came when Berlanti moved the Riverdale pilot from Fox to the CW, which is a better home for the show’s skewed tone. Fox may be known for offbeat comedy, but the CW’s established TV brand is “gorgeous characters behaving badly,” and Riverdale fits right in. From Gossip Girl to The Vampire Diaries to their recent Dynasty reboot, CW viewers have proven their insatiable appetite for froth.
Given these benchmarks, Riverdale wasn’t a total risk. But still, live-action Archie adaptations have rarely worked before. (The infamous 1990 TV movie, Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again, in which an adult Jughead raps “Sugar Sugar” with his son in a park, is truly the stuff of nightmares.)
But the biggest question mark of all with Riverdale was the issue of tone.
Sure, readers may accept seeing a brain-eating Jughead zombie on the page, but TV feels more intimate. As the creators of The Walking Dead have learned, what works on the page doesn’t always get the same reaction onscreen. For many fans, seeing a live-action Archie gang having sex and solving murders could easily have felt like a step too far.
Instead, it turns out that’s exactly what Archie and the CW needed to take the zeitgeist by storm.
Riverdale’s Season Two Ratings Boom
Riverdale debuted to 1.38 million viewers on January 26, 2017. Those aren’t earth-shattering numbers, but they’re not terrible either, especially for the CW.
As a comparison, Arrow debuted to 4.14M viewers, and The Flash debuted to 4.83M. Obviously, the DC heroes have a larger built-in fanbase than Archie does. The Arrowverse’s demographic also skews younger (and more family-friendly) than Riverdale, so this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison.
A closer comparison may be CW’s Jane the Virgin, which debuted to 1.61M viewers in 2014. Or its new Dynasty reboot, which premiered to 1.3M viewers this week. That’s just 80,000 fewer estimated viewers than Riverdale debuted to. Given this, you might think 1.38 million viewers is a fairly standard baseline for CW soap operas… but there’s a catch.
It turns out that Riverdale has an ace up its sleeve.
See, Arrow and The Flash debuted with big numbers and then saw their ratings dip as casual viewers moved on. For example, Arrow‘s second season premiere attracted only 2.74M viewers (down 1.4M year-to-year), while The Flash‘s second season premiered to 3.58M (down 1.25M). In theory, this is how most shows work; it starts with a bang of curiosity, and then its long-term audience comes in much lower than its debut.
This predictable TV ratings trend is why Riverdale‘s numbers are turning heads around the industry.
Riverdale‘s season two ratings for its decidedly over-the-top debut? 2.34 million viewers. This means that, unlike most shows that lose viewers year-over-year, Riverdale gained nearly 1 million viewers from season to season.
(In fact, Riverdale is actually outperforming Arrow, which debuted its latest season to only 1.52M viewers.)
Folks, this just doesn’t happen.
Putting Betty and Veronica in Perspective
While 2.34 million viewers is small compared to major hits like Game of Thrones (10.1M season seven debut) or The Big Bang Theory (17.65M season eleven debut), the CW isn’t HBO or CBS. It doesn’t have that kind of marketing, reach, or budget. So for a CW show to boost its ratings nearly 100% from year to year is basically unheard of.
(I checked: Gossip Girl didn’t do it. The Vampire Diaries didn’t do it. Supernatural didn’t do it. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend didn’t do it…)
Maybe the most impressive part? Riverdale’s season two ratings nearly doubled year-to-year without a lead-in. It broadcasts on Wednesdays at 8 p.m., which means there’s no genre-matching CW show on before it. (What follows it? Dynasty. So, yeah, half of Riverdale‘s viewers didn’t stick around for Dynasty, which means they’re showing up specifically for Archie.)
There’s plenty of possible reasons for Riverdale’s ratings bump. It did end season one on a cliffhanger. It did move to a less-competitive night of the week (from Thursday to Wednesday). And it did offer its entire first season on Netflix this summer, so its target audience had several months to binge it all and catch up.
Maybe most significantly, the end of Pretty Little Liars created a vacuum in the “illicit high school subterfuge” TV genre. So Riverdale could just be the right show at the right time to satisfy that urge.
But any way you slice it, what you’re seeing is an extreme rarity in TV viewing behavior — especially for a show that almost no one expected to succeed.
If these numbers hold throughout season two, Riverdale will be on pace to become the new flagship of the CW. But even if their curve levels out, its early success still makes 2018’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina [the Teenage Witch] reboot seem like a no-brainer.
Suddenly, after 75 years and a few shocking twists, everything’s coming up Archie.
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