Dustin Lance Black Responds to When We Rise's Ratings and Catholic Backlash

Dustin Lance Black

Dustin Lance Black has responded to reports that When We Rise received low ratings in its initial days of airing on ABC.

"First and foremost, our ratings aren’t in yet," said the creator of the star-studded and well-reviewed miniseries, which chronicles decades of the modern LGBT rights movement.

"Those numbers do not come in for another week or so, so the verdict on who’s watching When We Rise is not in yet," he said.

Black pointed out that initial data from entertainment outlets were incomplete measures of live viewership. Previously, Variety reported that When We Rise, which has aired every weeknight except Tuesday, pulled in 2.95 million viewers during its Monday premiere. This number fell to 2.05 million during its second installment Wednesday, and tracked 2.12 million on Thursday.

"As a reminder, daily ratings fluctuations tend to amount to mere quantum foam; many of these series will see lifts of 50 percent or more once viewing within three and seven days is counted," Variety noted in its report. "However, most of those gains won’t translate to the ratings guarantees networks make advertisers."

Pointing out engagement on social media, as well as accounts from family and friends, Black said a more complete picture will emerge once these numbers incorporate data from digital video recorders (DVR) and streaming services like Hulu.

"Listen, would I like more people to watch live? Sure. I would also love to own a pet unicorn," said Black. "We’ve always known, and it’s always been our belief, that this show is going to excel in DVR and online, because that’s how people watch miniseries now. This is not the era of Roots, where there’s three networks and you have to watch live. So, we’re really hopeful, I have to say."

"I do believe that the vast majority of viewers will watch on DVR. And if we can double our viewership on DVR, we’re considered a hit," he said.

In fact, Black said the number of live viewers had "fallen in the range of my expectation. Not my hopes, but my expectation." He also pointed to different measures of success.

"I’ll tell ya, I’ve never had something so well received by an audience in my career," said Black, who won an Oscar for the Milk screenplay. "Watching the response on Twitter, on Facebook, and on social media, the notes that are coming in, the emails that are coming in, it’s been so incredibly humbling this past week to hear how people are receiving [it]. But I have to say, almost every single one says, 'I can’t wait to watch the rest of it this weekend on my DVR.'"

Black also praised ABC for supporting such a bold production and creating a "testament" that "can't be erased." 

"This has been created. It will live online for a good long time," he said. "I hope it will be utilized by schools and by folks in the middle of the country that might feel a bit alone for a very long time."

He also put the ratings in perspective.

"Before you frame this as anything disappointing, can you please point out that more people have seen this show already than ever saw Milk in the theater," he said, adding, "Millions more people around the world know our history today than they did on Sunday. That’s incredibly significant."

However, Black said LGBT people and their allies do have some responsibility to support queer content on television. In the past week, CBS's Doubt and USA's Eyewitness, which both featured LGBT characters and storylines, were canceled. ABC's The Real O'Neals has yet to be renewed for a third season; and its star, Noah Galvin, is leading a social media campaign, #TheRealReason, to show the importance of queer representation in a time when LGBT rights and lives are under attack.

"If we want to continue to see our lives portrayed onscreen, well, it’s a good idea to tune in, particularly on network television," Black said. "Because at the end of the day, it’s a dollar game."

"We are experiencing this tremendous moment in television where more and more networks are willing to take risks depicting LGBT people on network television," he said. "I think perhaps a lot of our audience has drifted to cable, and they should be aware, and I hope you’ll help make them aware that network is waking up to our lives."

"Why is that important? Well, because these shows go beyond our niche audience. These shows reach all of America. It’d be great [for us] to show up to them."

In his interview with The Advocate, Black also responded to backlash from conservative Catholics. CNSNews.com claimed Thursday that When We Rise "mocks" and "slaps" members of the Catholic faith. As evidence, the right-wing outlet cited to a "nun, in full habit, of course" who recoils at a same-sex smooch, the backstory of lesbian activist Roma Guy, who points to her "very Catholic" family as a reason for her difficulty in coming out, and the "Catholic cops" who may threaten a women's march.

Black shot down the veracity of this criticism. 

"I gotta say right now, that nun is not a nun. She’s a Quaker. So that’s the end of that story," he said of the first complaint, which he called an "egregious misidentification" of the setting. "I don’t know what to say except it was rather clear, particularly in the arrangement of the chairs in that church and how that church looked, that was a Quaker church and not a Catholic church."

He also pointed out that if there were any historic animosity between the Catholic Church and members of the LGBT community — well, that's not fake news.

"If some of the story is difficult, I think they have to know that this is a true story based on real people, one of whom, Roma Guy, grew up Catholic," he said. "The Catholic Church is moving slowly towards a slightly more accepting position. But in 1972, it was not. It would be dishonest to say otherwise."

"We are not making these stories up. These stories are based on fact. The real people are still alive," he continued. "And if someone would like to question the veracity of their experience being gay and being in the Catholic Church, they can go right to the source."

Regardless, Black encouraged The Advocate's readers to watch When We Rise tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern on ABC if they can — or on DVR or streaming by the weekend, if they want to be counted among the first viewers of the historical and historic production.

"I had people yesterday asking if it was canceled, and I was like, 'Oh my goodness, no!' We are on track. We are on track, and I think we are going to, in the long run, be seen as quite a success," he concluded.

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