When Hannibal premiered on NBC in 2013, the first episode debuted to a live audience of 4.36 million and even grew the next week in its second episode. Those numbers quickly began to decline though, dropping down to the mid-two millions for much of the rest of the season and even dipped below two million for the season one finale. Despite this middling viewership, the vocal fandom and critical acclaim kept Hannibal going. Ratings across the series stayed around that average for its second season but were slashed in half for season three, but for series creator Bryan Fuller these numbers were a blessing and a curse while they were on the air.
“We didn’t get great ratings and we didn’t get great numbers, and the network was behind us but they weren’t as behind us as they would’ve been if we had cast who they wanted," Fuller told Collider in a new interview, revealing NBC wanted John Cusack or Hugh Grant in the title role. "But I think in the grand universal scheme it was the best thing for the show A. Because we got to have Mads and Hugh in scenes together and they were electric and B. We got to do things that were questionable with the content. We were no longer expected to achieve a certain goal.”
Fuller also detailed the larger conversations, and fights, that came out of his insistence in hiring Mads Mikkelsen for the title role. In another answer from the prolific writer comes some illuminating insight into perhaps why the series failed to find a huge audience, beyond simply being a series not for everyone, and it came down to some sides of the business not vibing with the casting of Mads.
"For the other sort of marketing folks, they were like, ‘Oh this show isn’t going to break through for us’. They sort of gave up on it a little bit because we were casting a European guy as the face of [a show] they wanted to be more accessible. I felt that they were right for their reasons but wrong for my reasons. And so the gift of that, the gift of casting Mads Mikkelsen, is that their investment in the show became dramatically decreased, and so that allowed us to do a lot of things that we wouldn’t have been able to do if they were saying, ‘No this show needs to get 10 million people watching it every week’. Because then we would have to really be tied down to certain parameters of storytelling that were going to mesh with a mainstream audience. So Mads was the gift that allowed us to tell the story the way that we wanted to tell it, because the network was like, ‘Well it’s not the person that we wanted and we don’t really see him in this role,’ and we were like, ‘Fine, just let us make the show’.”
All three seasons of Hannibal are currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Fuller remains hopefully that renewed interest in the series could lead to a revival.