How HBO's Michael Jackson Documentary Leaving Neverland Did In The Ratings

michael jackson leaving neverland hbo
(Image credit: hbo press)

HBO's Leaving Neverland focused on two extremely detailed sets of molestation allegations leveled against arguably the most popular musician who's ever lived. Even without the early reviews from its Sundance premiere, Leaving Neverland was destined to garner a lot of attention when it made its televised debut. The Live+Same Day ratings are now in, and HBO execs were likely pleased by the all the eyeballs that were tallied for the two-night airing.

Sunday Night

Because Leaving Neverland clocks in at around four hours, HBO wisely split the telecast up into two parts, with the first airing on Sunday night. The doc managed to make it into the Top 10 cable telecasts of the night, at least in terms of the key age demographic for adults 18-49. It earned a 0.4 demo rating and was tied for the fifth highest demo of the night. (Quite a few other shows, such as Showtime's Shameless, Adult Swim's Hot Streets and Discovery's Alaskan Bush People, also got a 0.4 rating.)

As far as the number of viewers goes, Leaving Neverland Part 1 was watched by around 1.28 million people, a total that wasn't enough to get the controversial project into the most watched non-broadcast shows on Sunday night. However, it was absolutely still a big win for HBO.

According to THR, an additional day of delayed viewing reportedly brought in another 500,000 viewers or so, bringing the total up to 1.7 million by Tuesday evening. Note that accounts for not just linear TV views, but also those who streamed the doc on HBO Go or HBO Now.

The actual biggest shows of Sunday night were things like CBS' 60 Minutes (10.2 million, 0.9 demo), ABC's American Idol's Season 2 premiere (8.65 million, 1.7 demo) and CBS' NCIS: Los Angeles (6.97 million, 0.9 demo). And over on cable, it was AMC's The Walking Dead (4.7 million, 1.7 demo), Hallmark's When Calls the Heart (2.38 million, 0.3 demo) and Discovery's Alaskan Bush People (2.18 million, 0.4 demo).

Monday Night

To be expected, what with all the broadcast networks offering more more primetime far on Monday night, Leaving Neverland didn't fare quite as well with its second part. It didn't tumble too far, though, with 927,000 viewers tuning in to see the allegations piling up during the documentary's continuation.

Monday night's telecast only dropped a tenth of a percentage point in the demographic ratings, for a 0.3 total for Part 2. Neither of those totals was good enough to earn a Top 10 spot, but Leaving Neverland's demo rating did manage to keep the doc in cable's Top 25 for Monday evening.

To its credit, Leaving Neverland's second-night demo rating matched up with programs that had double and triple its HBO viewers. For instance, History's American Pickers (1.83 million), Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight (2.862 million) and The Rachel Maddow Show (3.23 million) all also earned a 0.3 demo rating.

The WWE ruled over Monday night's cable ratings, to be sure, across all three of its primetime time slots. Monday Night Raw dropped from 3.06 million viewers (1.1 demo) in its first hour down to 2.48 million viewers (0.9 demo) for the third hour. So at least in terms of its demo rating, Leaving Neverland was in the realm of comparisons.

As well, Leaving Neverland's 0.9 demo rating matched or topped those of several big broadcast dramas. Fox's The Resident and The Passage shared that stat, as did NBC's new show The Enemy Within, but they all had bigger respective viewerships of 5.12 million, 3.38 million, and 5.32 million.

Success Compared To Other HBO Documentaries

HBO has long prided itself on delivering hot-button documentaries that reflect the political and pop culture zeitgeists. As such, Leaving Neverland was a fitting match for the premium cabler, especially during the #MeToo era where larger spotlights have been placed on entertainment giants' behavior both in and out of the industry. Combine that with the public's fascination over Michael Jackson's strange and debatable lifestyle, and HBO had one of the more disturbing recipes for success that can be concocted.

Leaving Neverland's first-night debut reportedly made it the third most-watched HBO documentary in the last decade – excluding music concert films – landing behind the similarly controversial Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and the mother-daughter doc Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. The former premiered to around 1.7 million viewers, while Reynolds' last on-screen role brought in 1.6 million people for its initial airing.

The two nights' audiences averaged out to around 1.1 million total viewers for Leaving Neverland, at least as far as Live+Same Day stats go. That stat is impressively higher than the norm for HBO's standard documentaries that air throughout the year.

Monday nights are traditionally when HBO chooses to offer up its documentary fare (while keeping its scripted series almost exclusively tethered to Sunday nights). The most recent half-dozen docs or so to get Monday-night premieres have only averaged around 187,000 viewers for those first showings. Such a massive spike in numbers is sure to please those at the network.

Oprah's Follow-Up Special Ratings

For those looking to see the conversation expand even wider, Oprah Winfrey somewhat surprisingly chose to air Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland following the second part of Leaving Neverland. Featuring the doc's subjects Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the special was taped in front of an audience of sexual abuse survivors, as well as others whose lives were changed by such criminal acts.

Lots of Leaving Neverland viewers apparently decided to stick around to see how Oprah Winfrey handled the discussions, too. After Neverland was watched by around 780,000 viewers, which is technically more than both ESPN's Pardon the Interruption and VH1's Cartel Crew, and both of those shows tied the Michael Jackson doc in the Top 25 demo ratings. (The follow-up special was simulcast on OWN as well.) The demographic ratings for Oprah's special weren't reported.

Did you guys tune into Leaving Neverland during the two nights of premieres? Did you watch Oprah Winfrey talk it out afterward? Did you hear about the idea that director Dan Reed has for a quasi-sequel?

If you missed out, HBO will be airing the documentary multiple times in the coming weeks, with both parts of Leaving Neverland airing back to back on Sunday, March 10, starting at 4:00 p.m. ET. And yes, After Neverland will air immediately following.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper.  Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.