Saturday, March 02, 2013

Stay tuned: The past 24 years of the Super Bowl lead out show

     The 1996 "Friends" episode "The One After the Superbowl"
     is still the most watched Super Bowl lead out show ever.

Here’s the thing about not being a professional: you’ve got to make sure real life is taken care of first before you commit to what you’re passionate about. And with that in mind, I present to you an examination of Super Bowl lead out shows in March.

The question that seems to constantly perplex the networks is, “What makes a successful, and hopefully good, lead out show?” Just because a network figures something out one year, doesn’t mean it can be emulated for their next Super Bowl year, or even the next calendar year.

So for no real reason other than me liking lists, I decided to take a look at the last two decades of lead out shows (1990-present), arbitrarily put them into “great,” “good,” “bad,” and “ugly” columns, and talk about where and why things went right or wrong. At the end, we’ll regroup and talk about what we’ve learned and what the postgame slot might go to next year.


FRIENDS, 52.9 million viewers
January 28, 1996 out of Super Bowl XXX on NBC (94.1 million viewers)

The Super Bowl lead out show to end all lead out shows: the light bulb, apple falling from the tree, “a-ha!” moment for the networks. People like “Friends”. People like the Super Bowl. Wouldn’t they also like chocolate and peanut butter together? The highest rated Super Bowl lead-out show ever saw Ross discover that his pet monkey has been cast in a movie, and it was a major turning point in how networks programmed the postgame showcase. The episode was not beloved by all critics, who weren’t impressed by some of the guest stars NBC brought on board for advertising purposes, but a close game until the very end helped “Friends” forever cement the maximization of the Super Bowl lead-out.

     Kucha tribe member/America's sweetheart/future
     national punchline Elisabeth Hasselbeck
January 28, 2001, out of Super Bowl XXXV on CBS (84.3 million viewers)

The little reality show that could slowly ballooned in the ratings over the summer of 2000, doubling its audience over 13 weeks before concluding with a season finale that drew in 52 million viewers. In August. Knowing they had a hit on their hands and 16 new Americans to turn into celebrities (if Colby Donaldson is your idea of a celebrity), CBS managed to score big with the second season premiere, in which we bid an all too soon farewell to one of reality television’s greatest enigmas in Debb Eaton. Oh well. I’m sure we could build just as good a reality show contestant just using rawks.

UNDERCOVER BOSS, 38.6 million viewers
February 7, 2010, out of Super Bowl XLIV on CBS (106.5 million viewers)

Huh. Apparently, people really wanted to watch the CEO of Waste Management go inside his own company to see how the sausage was composted. Who knew? During the 90s, the networks figured out that launching new shows out of the Super Bowl would lead to disaster by the time upfronts rolled around in May. But reality television is its own, weird, unexplainable beast. In my humble opinion, the premiere of “Undercover Boss” wouldn’t have drawn anywhere near as big an audience if it hadn’t aired out of a Super Bowl on CBS. The audience for CBS is of course laughably old and I imagine this was an instance where a lot of people either fell asleep or didn’t bother to change the channel. But credit where credit is due, CBS managed to end their game coverage by 10:15, so “Undercover Boss” started bright and early, relatively speaking. As we learned this year, that’s the best way of retaining an audience out of the big game.

GREY’S ANATOMY, 37.8 million viewers
February 5, 2006 out of Super Bowl XL on ABC (90.7 million viewers)

Okay, do over. ABC screwed the pooch last time around with “Alias,” so now it’s time for a Hail Mary. Already one of TV’s most popular shows, the post Super Bowl episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” documented a bomb scare at Seattle Grace, and the doctors who literally have to keep a hand inside a patient to stop an explosion. A much better decision by ABC, but an even better one? They made this the first of a two-part episode, drawing millions back for the following week’s conclusion. I’m not sure why that strategy hasn’t been repeated since.

THE VOICE, 37.6 million viewers
February 5, 2012 out of Super Bowl XLVI on NBC (111.3 million viewers)

Help me, Cee Lo Green, you’re our only hope. NBC’s one true blue hit of the decade so far was returning for its second season and the peacock figured they might as well try to squeeze every last viewer they could out of it rather than try to promote one of its flat-lining scripted shows. And damn if it didn’t work – not only did the premiere of “The Voice” draw 11 million more viewers than “Glee” did the year before, more than 17 million people came back the next night for episode two. NBC won in all demographics for many weeks to come, finally owning “Super Monday” as their night of primetime.

3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN, 33.6 million viewers
January 25, 1998, out of Super Bowl XXXII on NBC (90 million viewers)

The NFL audience is largely a borrowed one, but not a lot of people realize that. It’s why you hear a lot of confusion as to why NBC hasn’t been able to launch any new hits using the promotional power of “Sunday Night Football”, even if they were to cater to the “blowing shit up” demographic with Todd Van Der Werff’s “The Frank Fisticuffs Action Hour”. So what’s the best possible way to retain the Super Bowl audience? A football episode! NBC shipped the Solomon family off to the big game in San Diego and while the episode didn’t end up being that much about football, they managed to convince plenty of people to stick around for an hour of alien hijinks. Sadly, NBC will now lose NFL rights for 8 years, and the Super Bowl for 11. But it sure was a good five decades!

SURVIVOR: ALL STARS, 33.5 million viewers
February 1, 2004, out of Super Bowl XXXVIII on CBS (89.8 million viewers)

Still going strong after four years, the eighth season of CBS’ megahit reality franchise premiered after a tight New England victory in Houston, featuring the return of 18 of Survivor’s best of the best. Farewell, dear Tina Wesson. I will remember you for your “Australian Outback” win and your pronunciation of “Doritos,” and not your first boot on “All-Stars”. The crazy thing is, so will most people – because “The Australian Outback” was just so freakin’ popular at the time, more people watched her declared Sole Survivor on a random Thursday night in May 2001 than saw her torch snuffed after Nipplegate.

GRAND SLAM, 30.8 million viewers
January 28, 1990, out of Super Bowl XXIV on CBS (73.9 million viewers)

Shit. I basically have one identical write-up for every series premiere on this list. It doesn’t totally apply here though, so now I have to write something about a show I’ve literally never heard of. Speaking of “The Frank Fisticuffs Action Hour,” CBS opted to follow Super Bowl XXIV with the pilot episode of “Grand Slam,” an action series about bounty hunters in San Diego. I’m quite surprised nobody at the network appears to have stopped for a few minutes and wondered if airing a show called “Grand Slam” out of a highly rated football game would confuse the “not paying very much attention” segment of the viewership. In any case, “Grand Slam” apparently never found an audience and was off the air after six episodes.


HOUSE, 29 million viewers
February 3, 2008 out of Super Bowl XLII (97.5 million viewers)

Now this is how you do a Super Bowl episode. High profile guest star? Check: Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino. Gimmicky plot? Check: Mira Sorvino is a psychiatrist trapped on an expedition in Antarctica, and House and his team have to save her only by diagnosing her through a webcam, and without any medicine. The writers strike left the networks with very little scripted fare at this time, and Fox made the most of this episode with a pretty cool promotional campaign showing footage of a drill going into Mira Sorvino’s skull and branding the show as the special event, “HOUSE: FROZEN”. Excellent work. At least I had this to comfort me as I accepted the destruction of the Patriots’ perfect season. Sigh.

THE X-FILES, 29 million viewers
January 26, 1997 out of Super Bowl XXXI on Fox (87.9 million viewers)

I’d love to get more into this, but at some point I actually want to sit down and watch “The X-Files” in its entirety so I’m trying to avoid major plot points. Alls I know is this was a crazy episode in which Paul McCrane played a dude named Leonard Betts, who no big deal, was just a mutant who gained strength through cancer and was able to regenerate severed human limbs. The audience liked it and so did the critics. Naturally, Fox moved in another direction for the postgame slot in the years to come.

HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, 28.1 million viewers
January 31, 1993 out of Super Bowl XXVII on NBC (91 million viewers)

After many years of bad halftime shows, including marching bands, multiple acts on the same stage, and at least three different performances by “Up with People,” the NFL recruited Michael Jackson to be the sole halftime performer. For the first time ever, ratings actually increased during the halftime show and carried through to the second half of the game and beyond despite a Cowboys blowout. It boosted the audience for the premiere of NBC’s “Homicide,” a show that ended up airing for seven seasons. It never gained much attention, but was one of few Super Bowl premieres at this time to not crash and burn within weeks.

GLEE, 26.8 million viewers
February 6, 2011 out of Super Bowl XLV on Fox (111 million viewers)

Look at that wacky Sue Sylvester! She has motorcycles driving through flaming hoops and fires sexy cheerleaders out of cannons while Katy Perry’s “California Girls” plays. And yet, like Ryan Murphy, nothing she does thrills her anymore. Murphy at least had the good sense to know that incorporating McKinley High’s football team into the episode was a good bet at retaining an audience. And while not a very good episode qualitatively, the ratings ended up being perfectly acceptable.

DAVIS RULES, 26.7 million viewers
January 27, 1991 out of Super Bowl XXV on ABC (79.5 million viewers)

Really, the Randy Quaid/Jonathan Winters superstar comedy team didn’t catch on with the mainstream audience? Another show to bomb out of the Super Bowl, though this one was given a second life a year later on CBS with new cast members Bonnie Hunt and Giovanni Ribisi...where it failed a second time.

CRIMINAL MINDS, 26.3 million viewers
February 4, 2007 out of Super Bowl XLI on CBS (93.2 million viewers)

There’s been a murder. Where else but a Super Bowl party? I’d say a pretty good choice by CBS to help boost a well-performing sophomore drama. But I think the REAL draw here was a guest appearance by The Beek From The Creek. He appeared in this episode as...a character. (Not hard to tell which shows on this list I watch and which ones I don’t, is it?)


60 MINUTES/48 HOURS, 24.8 million viewers
January 26, 1992 out of Super Bowl XXVI on CBS (79.6 million viewers)

CBS had always planned to air an episode of “48 Hours” in the postgame slot. You know “48 Hours”, that show that now airs on Saturday nights and you can’t name a single person who watches it? Well this was back when 60 Minutes was a huge hit for CBS, and in some years was the highest rated show on television, so it was newsmagazines aplenty. In a last minute scheduling change, CBS slotted in a 13-minute edition of “60 Minutes” which consisted of an interview with Bill Clinton and future First Lady Hillary about Gennifer Flowers, a former model who came forward alleging a sexual relationship with the Governor while he was on the presidential campaign trail. If that interview had been the whole hour, this might have scored a bigger audience, but CBS’ misconception that 48 Hours and 60 Minutes were the same thing was just that: a misconception.

THE PRACTICE, 23.8 million viewers
January 30, 2000 out of Super Bowl XXXIV on ABC (88.5 million viewers)

It was still the most watched episode of the series, but it doesn’t seem very surprising that David E. Kelley’s legal jargon, dramatic rhythms, and quirky characters weren’t the enormous hand extension for the Super Bowl audience that the Alphabet network might have thought. Unfortunately, they’re only going down from here.

THE SIMPSONS/AMERICAN DAD, 23 million viewers
February 6, 2005 out of Super Bowl XXXIX on Fox (86 million viewers)

I’m laying some blame on Fox for this one, a decision that seemingly ignored about a decade of lead-out show history. Fox paired “The Simpsons” and a new comedy (“Family Guy”) together six years earlier, so they should have been able to see this result coming. But the entire point of the Super Bowl lead out is retaining the game’s audience, so I’ll never understand pairing two half-hour shows together. Considering this was the last time it happened, I’m skeptical it will be attempted again.

THE OFFICE, 22.9 million viewers
February 1, 2009 out of Super Bowl XLIII on NBC (98.7 million viewers)

The Super Bowl returned to NBC for the first time since 1998 with a stressful hour for the Scranton branch. Its insanely broad opening minutes could have been a warning sign, but the roast of Michael Scott actually ended up being one of the best episodes of a very hit and miss fifth season for “The Office”. It did decently in the postgame slot for a show that not many people watch weekly, but should have been able to retain more viewers from a down-to-the-wire Steelers win.

     The Internet doesn't seem to want me to find a photo
     from "Extreme," so here's James Brolin on the set of last
     week's "Castle".
EXTREME, 22.6 million viewers
January 29, 1995 out of Super Bowl XXIX on ABC (83.4 million viewers)

“Extreme,” an epic James Brolin adventure series, was really the final nail in the coffin for new shows premiering after the game. Following the success of “The A Team” and “The Wonder Years,” I don’t blame the networks for trying it. But never before had something so expensive and heavily promoted tanked out of TV’s biggest showcase. Seven episodes and out.

FAMILY GUY/THE SIMPSONS, 22 million viewers
January 31, 1999 out of Super Bowl XXXIII on Fox (83.7 million viewers)

Sure, Homer Simpson took all of his friends to the big game in Miami with the help of Fred Willard and NFL legends like Dan Marino and John Madden, but I think the REAL draw here was Marge and Lisa building “Vincent Price’s Egg Magic” in their absence. Football fans can never get enough Marge and Lisa antics.


MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, 21.4 million viewers
February 3, 2002, out of Super Bowl XXXVI on Fox (86.8 million viewers)

In the wake of 9/11, the networks became very interested in family based programming, so Fox wanted a family show to air out of Super Bowl XXXVI. If you’ve seen an episode of “Malcolm in the Middle,” you know exactly what kind of family that is. Maybe not exactly what they were going for, but if “family” was what they were going for, they didn’t have many other options that year. “That 70s Show” and “The Bernie Mac Show” were perfectly cromulent sitcoms, but didn’t evoke family in as traditional a family sense (“That 70s Show” was really about friends, and the quite new at the time “Bernie Mac Show” was about a couple who had adopted their nephew and nieces) and as non-traditional a series sense – “Malcolm in the Middle” had premiered just two years earlier and was one of TV’s first successful single camera comedies; people enjoyed the weirdness and unfamiliar territory the show trekked. “The Bernie Mac Show” was also single camera and did its fair share of playing with the sitcom format, but as weird as it looks in writing, there is a sort of standard of success required for a post Super Bowl airing. I don’t fault Fox for trying this, especially since the hour long “Company Picnic” was jam packed not just with celebrities like Susan Sarandon, but NFL personalities like Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long. But ultimately, I’m deferring this to the “Ugly” column because there were regularly scheduled episodes of “Malcolm” that drew bigger ratings than their post Super Bowl episode.

ELEMENTARY, 20.8 million viewers
February 3, 2013, out of Super Bowl XLVII on CBS (108.4 million viewers)

How much can we fault CBS for this bomb? A little bit. Sure, a 34-minute power outage at the Superdome pushed the start of “Elementary” completely out of primetime, starting later than any other lead out show ever at around 11:12pm. But in CBS’ efforts to promote a freshman series, they did almost nothing to ensure people were sticking around no matter how late the game ended: no big guest stars, no gimmicky plots, and from what the critics tell me, a dud of an episode qualitatively.

January 30, 1994 out of Super Bowl XXVIII on NBC (90 million viewers)

Let’s beat this dead horse one last time. NEW SHOW OUT OF THE SUPER BOWL = BAD. TWO HALF HOUR SHOWS = BAD. Moving on... (The 17.7 million who stuck around to watch “The John Larroquette Show” in the second half hour only barely tops our last show, which is...)

ALIAS, 17.4 million viewers
January 26, 2003, out of Super Bowl XXXVII on ABC (88.6 million viewers)

Congratulations, J.J. and co. “Alias” holds the dubious distinction of being the lowest-rated modern era Super Bowl lead-out show, retaining just 19% of the big game’s audience. The original plan for the Super Bowl episode was supposedly a very standalone instalment with a lot of action in it, guest starring Ethan Hawke, in the hopes of enticing viewers who had never seen the show before to come back the next Sunday. And then for some reason, things were switched around and the episode that actually ended up airing, “Phase One,” was an episode caught in the middle of an ongoing, very heavily serialized storyline, chosen basically because Jennifer Garner was in her underwear in the opening scene. The Super Bowl audience wasn’t buying it, and considering it was after 11pm on the East Coast (the latest start time for a post Super Bowl episode until this year), they headed to bed.

What did we learn/what can we learn?

The biggest lesson we takeaway? NEVER launch a new scripted show out of the Super Bowl. Nobody wants to stay up and learn a whole bunch of new characters’ names, backstories, wants, and needs at 10:30pm on a Sunday. But we also learned interesting things network by network. For example, Fox seemed to struggle for a few years trying to stunt cast “The Simpsons” to little success before giving the slot to its bigger drama hits (“Glee” isn’t a drama, but it’s not a comedy either). ABC only finally figured out how to program that slot (with its biggest established hit, and not some crazy new show) just in time for them to give away their NFL rights to sister network ESPN. NBC and CBS, the original homes of the NFL on television, both did pretty well for themselves over the last few decades. But each figured out the path to ultimate lead out ratings: REALITY, BABY! In fact, perhaps if Christina Aguilera and Annie’s Boobs go undercover in the blue-collar world of reality TV production, one of the networks can finally beat those “Friends” numbers.

Where are we headed?

Fox will air the Super Bowl next year, and they’re in a bit of a conundrum. Except in the midst of writing that last sentence, I solved it. I was going to write about how Fox does best airing a hit drama out of the big game, and they don’t really have one of those at the moment. Except duh-doy, they totally do. So here are the only two feasible options I see for next year’s lead out show:

1) Season premiere of “The Following”
I hate “The Following,” but Fox viewers don’t. And February 2 sounds just right for a season premiere next year, considering Kevin Bacon’s commitment to the show means it will never be able to air year round. “Kevin Bacon fighting serial killers, Sunday after the Super Bowl!” It practically writes itself. I will be shocked if Fox picks anything else, but if they want something less stabby...

2) One-hour “New Girl”
I figured sadly this was Fox’s best bet until I remembered “The Following” existed. “New Girl” is great, but Fox has never done well giving the post game slot to a comedy, especially not one pulling in numbers as weak as “New Girl”. I say “New Girl” only goes in if “The Following” is deemed a little too dark for 7:30 on the west coast (unlikely), or perhaps if "The Following" tape gets jammed in the Fox control room.

And what about after that? Then we circle back to NBC, and who knows where they'll be by then. But I would like to talk about the next CBS Super Bowl, in 2016, already. Because I think it will be their last chance to do it before the show ends, I hope they air a one hour "Big Bang Theory". Lord knows it doesn't need any help in the ratings, but I just want to see how it would do, especially in comparison to those "Friends" numbers.

And don’t forget – Super Bowl XLVIII airs Sunday, February 2 on Fox. Seriously, don’t forget. They really need you to tune in. At least set your DVR. Or consider setting it. Thank you.