Why Do So Many People Watch ‘Real Time With Bill Maher’ on HBO?

Those of you old enough to remember the entire career trajectory of Bill Maher will probably remember back to when he was just a standup comedian without a strong political streak. Most of those early days were appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Letterman where he became a favorite for dryly sarcastic observational comedy.

This took him on a long road to where he is now hosting Real Time with Bill Maher. Now worth $100 million for his long-running HBO talk show, what keeps it so popular?

Ratings continue to stay steady, even if he’s often hanging by a controversial thread.

The beginnings of Bill Maher’s political comedy

Real Time with Bill Maher

Real Time with Bill Maher | HBO

Back in the early 1990s, nobody would have thought Maher would eventually become one of the most talked about political talk show hosts of the modern era. When he was offered Politically Incorrect in 1993 on the then fledgling Comedy Network, it rekindled a new kind of talk show where the celebrity guests interacted as much as the host.

It also allowed for a circle of frank discussions about important issues of the day with a combination of popular celebrity comedians and real pundits. This took Maher to another level as a comedian and host. No wonder ABC found immediate interest in turning it into a late-night show.

You may remember in 1997 when Politically Incorrect became an ABC late-night staple for the next five years in the slot where Jimmy Kimmel now is.

Over time, though, Maher ultimately ended up on the list of the most hated talk show hosts ever. Most of this was the result of him being an open atheist with a no-holds-barred attitude on political opinions.

Transitioning to ‘Real Time’

Maher was often putting his foot in his mouth on Politically Incorrect, including immediately after 9/11 occurred. ABC finally had it with the controversy when Maher made a comment insinuating America acted cowardly during the terrorist attacks. Many took this as an affront to our military, and sponsors pulled out.

ABC canceled the show in 2002, though Maher quickly inked a deal at HBO for Real Time with Bill Maher. No doubt all the Emmy Awards Politically Incorrect won (and his upholding of free speech) impressed HBO execs.

This show didn’t change the format. In more recent years, of course, we’ve seen Maher use a desk, unlike the “in the round” chairs used before.

The show has also been more controversial than ever, bringing the perpetual debate about whether we should overlook the host in favor of the show’s brilliant format.

Real Time’ ratings

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Oh, look, it got fixed already.

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When you look at the ratings of Real Time over the last 16 years, viewership has continued to climb. Over the last few years alone, it’s pulled in respectable numbers hovering around the 6 to 7 share range.

It seems the more controversy the show generates, the more people watch. Also, because HBO has more subscribers than ever, more people are apt to watch on Sunday nights. You can say this thanks to the programming block also containing the very popular Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which resumes its new season this February.

Maher’s show goes almost continually, and he uses his Twitter and Instagram accounts to promote many of the stinging comments he uses in his monologues. As you can see, using social media to enhance his political comments just ruffles feathers further. Part of this was acerbically going after recent “incels” who defaced a billboard promoting the show.

We all know controversy attracts people like moth to flame. Yet, Real Time continues to enjoy Emmy prestige and a solid viewer base. We can only wonder, though, if the show may come to a screeching halt someday once Maher makes a freewheeling comment going over a line. Even then, we should expect a streaming service to pick it back up due to the show’s allure.