Why Did ‘The Wire’ Have Low Ratings When It First Aired on HBO?

Once in a while, it’s good to get some perspective on the great TV shows of the past. For example, most people know The Sopranos and Game of Thrones were both huge ratings hits while they each landed dozens of awards for HBO.

In fact, the mob series starring James Gandolfini set and held a record for most viewers averaged across a season (18.2 million in 2002) that lasted until 2014 (when GoT broke it). Over the past (seventh) season, Game of Thrones averaged an eye-popping 31 million viewers per show.

Things were quite different for The Wire, another classic show in the HBO canon. It didn’t win any Emmys or Golden Globes, had a small production budget, and brought in 4 million viewers per show at its peak.

So how did such a widely praised show — one many consider to be the greatest in TV history — play to such a small audience? Mostly, it was the novelistic approach creator David Simon and his team took to presenting the show. And the fact they never compromised that vision across The Wire’s five seasons.

Getting audiences ‘to watch TV in a different way’

The Wire
The Wire | HBO

When you read about Simon’s professed vision for The Wire (2002-08), it’s not surprising the show had a small audience compared to its contemporary, The Sopranos (1999-2007). In the foreword to the book by one of the show’s staff writers, Simon said the first thing he set out to do was “teach folks to watch television in a different way.”

He intended for the show to unfold like a sweeping novel, with the arcs of multiple characters developing over time and plenty of boring “anti-drama” moments mixed in between. Contrasted with The Sopranos and its reliance on the heavyweight performance by Gandolfini, you can see which show was easier to watch.

In The Wire’s case, there was no clear lead. Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominick West) at times carried the torch, but then Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) would take over for awhile. Then we’d see Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) try to lock down the surveillance tech (i.e., the wire).

But just as you got used to cops trying to take down a criminal enterprise — something TV audiences always get behind — the scene shifted to a decidedly uncharismatic Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) and his crew of longshoremen for Season Two.

Putting it that way, you might say it’s a miracle The Wire got the audience it did.

Baltimore’s decay from a variety of angles

Michael K. Williams as Omar Little on HBO's 'The Wire' in convenience store
Michael K. Williams as Omar Little on ‘The Wire’ | HBO

While the narrative of The Wire might hop between a dozen characters in the course of an episode, the show also focused on different areas of Baltimore’s stark urban decay. Once the dysfunctional police force gets it due in Season One, the audience checks in on the corrupt dockside scene for the second installment.

Later, the focus shifts to politicians and the police department brass, the failures of the school system, and the crumbling of local journalism (as if accountability weren’t already shot). Needless to say, things looked grim in The Wire, whether you were a junkie selling scrap or a kid trying to survive a day in public school.

A decade after the show wrapped, most people marvel that Simon and his cast and crew were able to pull off the masterpiece that is The Wire. From its unforgettable characters (we can’t leave out Omar, Bunk Moreland, or Kima) to its refusal to allow easy wins for its characters, the show remains a remarkable achievement.

Before you meander into another dull Netflix series, it’ll be worth your time to head to Amazon Prime or HBO and stream The Wire in its entirety.

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