Catching the wave of a public fascination with vampires, HBO's "True Blood" has steadily increased in stature to become the cable network's most popular series since "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City."
Based on the series of Sookie Stackhouse novels written by Charlaine Harris and starring Anna Paquin in the lead character's role, "True Blood" has grown its Sunday night viewership by 66 percent since its debut in September.
The first season finale airs this Sunday, with a second season already in production.
"True Blood" casually imagines a world where vampires, telepathic women and "shape shifters" — people who can assume the shapes of animals — are a part of everyday life in a small Louisiana town. A steamy romance between Paquin's waitress and Bill the brooding vampire, portrayed by Stephen Moyer, stands at the show's center.
The HBO series also benefits from proximity to this week's much-anticipated release of the "Twilight" movie, another spooky drama about a girl and the vampire who loves her. Another parallel: "Twilight" is also based on a literary series.
Alan Ball, who produced HBO's "Six Feet Under," came to the network with the idea of adapting Harris' novels into escapist entertainment.
"After ‘Six Feet Under,’ where as an artist and a person I got to explore my whole relationship with grief for about five years, I just felt, OK, I don't really need to spend any more time staring into the abyss," Ball said.
Ball's pitch was basically all it took to sell HBO's executives on the idea, said Michael Lombardo, HBO's chief of West Coast operations. Ball kept the foreboding darkness expected in vampire stories, spiced up the sex and violence, mixed in humor and explored the theme of outsiders in society, he said.
Boost in sales of books
The novels are centered on Stackhouse, so Ball said he had to develop some of the characters around her to avoid overworking Paquin. Harris is unlikely to mind any artistic licenses; all seven of her Stackhouse novels currently rank in the top 30 of The New York Times paperback fiction bestsellers list.
The series averages 6.8 million viewers each week. As is typical for HBO, the viewership is scattered around in-demand viewing and reruns aired at different times during the week. But Lombardo said he's noticed that more people are tuning in for the Sunday episode premieres, a sign of anticipation among fans.
HBO usually spends a big promotion budget to get people to watch the first episode of a new series, and hope enough viewers are satisfied to come back is subsequent weeks. The "True Blood" promotion included some approaches unusual for the network, including setting up fake Web sites and advertising a fake drink called ‘Tru Blood."
Growing audience faster than ‘The Sopranos’
But the series started relatively quietly and has built its audience week-to-week, Lombardo said. Even notable successes like "The Sopranos" grew more slowly, with a big jump coming at the start of the second season, he said.
"We haven't gone out and made a lot of noise about it because every week the numbers would come in and we'd say, ‘Wow, is this true? Will this sustain?'" Lombardo said.
The timing couldn't be better for HBO, a subscriber-based network that lost some of its hipness factor when it failed to develop shows that could match the critical and commercial highs of "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City."
The failure of series like "John from Cincinnati" and "Lucky Louie" left HBO suffering on Sundays, generally its showcase nights for original material.
"You start worrying," Lombardo admitted. "You see other networks putting on important programs on Sunday nights and you worry, ‘can you bring them back?' What has been fantastic is to see the subscribers have been waiting for a Sunday night show they can make appointment viewing again."
The series will return for its second season next summer, and HBO is looking to build anticipation by releasing a DVD of the first season before that — unusually early for the network.
Ball said that by the fourth season of "Six Feet Under," he and his team were having trouble coming up with new stories.
But he's optimistic about the future of "True Blood." The first season essentially followed Harris' first novel, and there are seven in the series with an eighth on the way. Ball said he's been impressed with how the stories keep surprising him, and how fresh the world created by Harris seems.
"If I wasn't making this show," he said, "I'd be watching it."