The much-hyped, $200 million mini-series premiered on the cable channel last Sunday night, to less-than-stellar ratings. According to John Nolte at BigHollywood.com, Nielsen estimates put viewership for the first episode at only 3.1 million, far below the 10 million who tuned in for the opening installment of Band of Brothers in 2001. HBO claims The Pacific delivered 69% more viewers than its regular Sunday night programming, and a 22% audience increase over its last "big" mini-series, John Adams.
But, as Mr. Nolte observes, there is a fair amount of spin behind the network's numbers. HBO's regular Sunday evening series, True Blood, averages 5 million viewers, and the History Channel's re-run of Band on Brothers in 2004 attracted an audience 4.6 million--a substantial increase over The Pacific's debut.
So, what happened?
John Nolte believes HBO's new mini-series was hurt by comments from actor Tom Hanks, who serves as one of its executive producers. Just days before the premier, Hanks told MSNBC that our struggle against Imperial Japan was a war of "racism and terror," suggesting we fought the Japanese (in part) because "they were different." While acknowledging that the mini-series will "honor U.S. bravery," Hanks said The Pacific will also depict U.S. atrocities:
"...we also wanted to have people say, ‘We didn’t know our troops did that to Japanese people."
Of course, Hanks makes no mention of "what the Japanese did" to its enemies during the Pacific War. Wonder if the auteur has ever heard of the Rape of Nanking? Or Pearl Harbor. Or the Bataan Death March. Or Imperial Japan's inhumane treatment of Allied POWs. Or the wanton slaughter of Filipino civilians who dared to aid their countrymen, fighting as guerrillas during the Japanese occupation. Or the thousands of Korean women who were forced to serve as prostitutes for the Imperial Army. And that's just scratching the surface of Japanese atrocities.
Unfortunately for Tom Hanks (and HBO), many viewers who might watch The Pacific understand the context of American "atrocities" in that theater during World War II. They know that such acts by our troops were relatively isolated, and almost always in direct response to Japanese barbarism. Viewers also understand that Hanks' parallels between the "racism" of World War II and the current War on Terror are equally imbecilic.
Believing The Pacific would be an exercise in political correctness, many viewers decided to watch something else. Still, it's hard to say how much of the audience was put off by Tom Hanks' remarks, and made a conscious decision to skip the mini-series. Truth be told, there were other reasons to tune out, and they have nothing to do with a certain actor's world view.
We caught a repeat of the premier episode and found it inferior, in some respects, to Band of Brothers. The 2001 mini-series employed a different narrative "arc," using the first installment to introduce the men of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The segment follows the soldiers through their initial training in Georgia, under the supervision of a heartless commander, Captain Herbert Sobel.
While Sobel's tough training prepares the paratroopers for war, it quickly becomes evident that he is not capable of leading the men into combat. With the D-Day invasion just weeks away, the company's NCOs request an audience with their regimental commander, requesting that Sobel be replaced. Realizing they could face charges of insubordination (or worse), the non-comms tell the commander they will give up their stripes if Sobel isn't transferred. It was a decisive moment for the mini-series (and the audience) speaking volumes about the men who would fight their way across Europe during World War II.
By comparison, The Pacific plunges almost instantly into combat, with minimal character development. In the first episode, viewers meet two Marines: Robert Leckie (whose memoir, Helmet for My Pillow provides much of the material for the mini-series) and John Basilone, who won the Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal and the Navy Cross on Iwo Jima. The third major figure in the mini-series, Private Eugene Sledge, doesn't appear until Episode Four.
Based on our observations, The Pacific suffers from "too much foreground and not enough background," a criticism that was also leveled at Band of Brothers. To be fair, the first episode of the new mini-series had more than its share of moments. In one sequence, Leckie and his fellow Marines on Guadalcanal watch the U.S. and Japanese navies slug it out in the waters off-shore, a battle impressively rendered through the magic of CGI.
The next morning the Leathernecks awake to find the Navy is gone, forced to retreat after losing four cruisers--and hundreds of sailors--in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Surrounded by the Japanese (with no immediate prospect of resupply or reinforcement), the Marines are instructed to move into the hills and fight as guerrillas, if existing positions can't be maintained. That sobering instruction brilliantly captured the isolation and desperation of the decisive days during the Solomons Campaign.
We should point out that Episode #1 also had the difficult task of compressing roughly five months of history into only one hour. That's one reason the narrative may seem a bit rushed. Future episodes will focus on shorter periods, or so we've been told.
But will audiences tune in? That's the multi-million dollar question for HBO and its partners. Historically, viewership for mini-series tends to drop off after the first installment, before peaking (again) at the conclusion. At this point, The Pacific almost certainly will not match the ratings for Band of Brothers, although the cable channel stands to recoup its investment through subsequent airings on other networks, foreign distribution and DVD sales.
Still, the folks at HBO must be disappointed in early numbers for The Pacific. And they can only wonder how many folks turned away because of Tom Hanks' idiotic comments.