Post-Super Bowl shows pull in extra viewers, but few keep them

The time slot after the big game gives networks ample opportunity to boost show viewership

One of the most interesting scheduling decisions networks make every season is choosing which show will follow the Super Bowl. This Sunday, that honor (or burden, perhaps) has been given to CBS’ newest late-night host, Stephen Colbert and "The Late Show." This is the first time that the Eye Net is giving a late night talk show the post-Super Bowl spot, which nearly guarantees strong viewership. And Stephen Colbert lead-out "The Late Late Show with James Corden" will also likely fare well, at least on this one night.

Naturally, CBS is hoping to ignite interest in its revamped late-night lineup, which could certainly use a boost. Both Stephen Colbert and James Corden are trailing Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers on NBC this season, by double-digit percentages, respectively, in total viewers and the key demographics of adults 18-49 and adults 25-54, according to Nielsen.  

"The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" on Super Bowl Sunday will feature more guests than usual, including Tina Fey, Will Ferrell and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. And Corden is hoping the star power of the legendary Sir Elton John will resonate. So, the hope among the CBS brass is that some Super Bowl viewers will stick around for those shows, and even start watching the pair regularly.

Don’t count on it.

More often than not, the added exposure gained from the post-Super Bowl broadcast makes no difference in the shelf life of a series. (See the top 20-most watched post-Super Bowl shows since the game starting its broadcasting in primetime in 1978). The placement can even be a burden because inflated sampling could create unrealistic expectations, particularly for a new series. The more viewers you launch with, thanks this annual football extravaganza, the further you have to fall without them. But, like in any case, success or failure always comes down to the caliber of the programming.

While every show airing after The Super Bowl will certainly fare better with the extraordinary support, the shelf life of any new series is dependent on the actual show itself (and not this inflated sampling). "Undercover Boss," for example, remains on CBS six years after debuting out of The Super Bowl because viewers took a shining to its inspirational type of reality storytelling. And sitcom classic "The Wonder Years" earned its keep, winning the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in that first abbreviated season in 1988.

But other new series at that time that had the same post-Super Bowl exposure, like "MacGruder and Loud," "The Last Precinct" and "Extreme," amounted to nothing because viewers were simply not interested in these inferior shows.

Early on, what show would air the post-Super Bowl slot was actually never much of a concern because the first game to air in primetime was not until 1978. Some of the early lead-outs included regularly-scheduled Sunday night shows like "Lassie," "Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color," "60 Minutes," and the "NBC Nightly News." There were even two golf tournaments.

The first series to actually make its debut after the Super Bowl was in 1979 when NBC introduced its short-lived sitcom "Brothers and Sisters," a frat house comedy trying to capitalize on the mega-hit film "Animal House." It did not matter that 31.7 million viewers tuned in for the premiere; the sitcom, which was completely unwatchable, was an immediate flop and lasted only 12 episodes.

But at a time when CBS did not know if "Survivor" would survive past its mega-successful first season, 45.4 million viewers stuck around after game day to sample the Australian Outback-set edition in 2001. Fifteen years later, it is unlikely "Survivor" will end anytime soon.

NBC used the same Super Bowl strategy for the second season premiere of singing competition "The Voice" in 2012. And FOX introduced the animated gang named Griffin via "Family Guy," after football in 1999. Once again, it is always about the programming itself.

Many established series have also landed on Super Bowl Sunday. The most successful in the last 50 years was a one-hour installment of "Friends" in 1996. The episode featured celebrity guest stars Julia Roberts, Brook Shields, Chris Isaak, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dan Castellaneta and pulled in a record 52.9 million viewers. At the time, "Friends" did not need the Super Bowl boost; it ranked third overall that season (behind "ER" and "Seinfeld").  But NBC apparently was in search of the "highest-grossing ad-revenue day in television history" and "Friends" was chosen for added duty.
Based on past history, Stephen Colbert and James Corden will gain viewers this Sunday. How can they not? But the added viewership can be fleeting. And some first-time viewers might think last year’s combination of David Letterman and Craig Ferguson was a better fit.

The following chart ranks the 20 most-watched post-Super Bowl shows since "All in the Family" in 1978. The ranking includes a combination of series premieres, established shows and events.

1. "Friends" (NBC) – 1/28/96: 52.9 million
2. "Survivor: The Australian Outback" (CBS) – 1/28/01: 45.4 million (season premiere)
3. "The Big Event" (NBC) – 1/09/77: 42.8 million ("Raid on Entebbe")
4. "60 Minutes" (CBS) – 1/20/80: 40.7 million
5. "The Last Precinct" (NBC) – 1/26/86: 39.7 million (series premiere)
6. "Undercover Boss" (CBS) – 2/07/10: 38.7 million (series premiere)
7. "Grey’s Anatomy" (ABC) – 2/05/06: 37.8 million
8. "The Voice" (NBC) – 2/05/12: 37.6 million (season premiere)
9. "All in the Family" (CBS) – 1/15/78: 35.5 million
10. "60 Minutes" (CBS) – 1/26/92: 34.0 million
11. "3rd Rock From the Sun" (NBC) – 1/25/98: 33.7 million
12. "Survivor" All-Stars" (CBS) – 2/01/04: 33.5 million (season premiere)
13. "Brotherhood of the Rose" (NBC) – 1/22/89: 32.0 million (miniseries, part one)
14. "Brothers & Sisters" (NBC) – 1/21/79: 31.7 million (series premiere)
15. "Grand Slam" (CBS) – 1/28/90: 30.8 million (series premiere)
16. "The X-Files" (Fox) – 1/26/97: 29.1 million
17.  "House" (Fox) – 2/03/08: 29.0 million
     "The Wonder Years" (ABC) – 1/31/88: 29.0 million (series premiere)
19. "Homicide: Life on the Street" (NBC) – 1/31/93: 28.1 million (series premiere)
20. "Glee" (Fox) – 2/06/11: 26.8 million

Source: Nielsen Media Research


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