vulture investigates

Do the Olympics Help NBC Shows Find Viewers? Vulture Digs Through NBC’s Past

If you’ve watched even an hour or two of NBC’s coverage of the London Olympics, surely a few things have stood out: the intense jingoism, the overabundance of Seacrest, the unusual arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” used in the medal ceremonies. (So bouncy.) But in between all those rippling muscles and thrills of victory, another consistent presence emerged: that of the endless NBC promos. The too-tan face of Matthew Perry glaring at his support-group peers, the squealing anthropomorphism of some sad monkey, the sweaty visages of Chicago firefighters — over and over and over again. But that’s why NBC buys the rights to the Olympics, right? So they can sell advertising and launch new programming?

If only it worked. That plan, in fact, does not work: Of the 26 shows NBC has tried to launch off the summer Olympics since 1996, only six have lasted more than one season. Another five didn’t even make it to ten episodes. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, with all the shows NBC hoped the Olympics would help buoy.

The Atlanta Games came during NBC’s glory days, during the Friends/ER/Seinfeld ratings domination. The new shows that year:

  • Something So Right: lasted 24 episodes.
  • Men Behaving Badly: lasted 28 episodes.
  • Suddenly Susan: lasted four seasons, thanks perhaps to getting its launch in the post-Seinfeld 9:30 p.m. Thursday slot.
  • Dark Skies: lasted nineteen episodes.
  • Profiler: lasted four seasons.
  • The Jeff Foxworthy Show: lasted 23 episodes (after being previously cancelled on ABC the season before).
  • Mr. Rhodes: lasted seventeen episodes.
  • The Pretender: lasted four seasons. It’s worth noting here that Dark Skies, The Pretender, and Profiler were all Saturday night series, a night that, at the time, all the networks programmed. It was a long time ago!

The Tally: Eight shows launched, three shows renewed. Not too shabby, in the scheme of things. Suddenly Susan was the number-three show for the 1996–97 season, too.

The tides are starting to turn a little. The 1999–2000 season saw the launch of ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, so going into the fall, NBC needed to step up its game. The Sydney Olympics also came later in the year — starting in the middle of September instead of at the end of July or the beginning of August. That meant the time between the end of the Games and the launch of the new programming was minimal. So, how did the new shows fare?

  • Deadline: aired five episodes.
  • Tucker: aired four episodes. (Subsequent episodes of this and Deadline were burned off in the spring.)
  • Titans: aired eleven episodes.
  • Ed: aired four seasons. Awww, Ed.
  • Michael Richards Show: aired eight episodes.
  • Cursed/Weber Show: aired fifteen episodes. It debuted as Cursed, then changed its name to The Weber Show partway through the season. If you can’t succeed in the post-Friends timeslot, something is seriously wrong.
  • DAG: aired sixteen episodes.

The Tally: Seven shows launched, one show renewed. That’s not great, although it’s not unheard of either, but even more damning is how quickly the canceled series all got their respective axes.

Off to Athens. At this point, NBC was seriously losing ground: American Idol had dominated the 2007–08 season, and Friends had just come to an end. The lineup that was supposed to stanch the hemorrhaging:

  • Father of the Pride: lasted eleven episodes. Eleven excruciating episodes.
  • Hawaii: lasted seven episodes.
  • Joey: lasted two seasons. (More like one and a half.)
  • Medical Investigation: lasted twenty episodes.
  • LAX: lasted thirteen episodes.
  • The Biggest Loser: still going, thirteen cycles later.

The Tally: Six shows launched, two shows renewed. Not too bad, except that Pride was such a heavily promoted show, only to be both terrible and a ratings failure. Who could have known that an animated series about the lions who perform with Siegfried & Roy would be so bad?

By this point, NBC’s ratings were bottoming out. Ben Silverman’s reign was in its second year, and in the 2003–04 season, NBC had exactly one show in the top twenty — and that was Sunday night football. And yet, on the heels of Beijing, we got:

  • America’s Toughest Jobs: aired ten episodes.
  • Knight Rider: aired seventeen episodes.
  • Kath & Kim: aired seventeen episodes.
  • My Own Worst Enemy: aired nine episodes.
  • Crusoe: aired twelve episodes.

The Tally: Zero out of five.

It’s not that the Olympics are a uniquely bad time to launch new shows — it’s that they have no impact on NBC’s hit rate. In 2000, for example, Fox went two-for-five, CBS went four-for-seven, but ABC went zero-for-three; 2004 found ABC with four hits and four cancellations and CBS with one hit and four failures. The huge audience NBC pulls in for the Games does not translate to viewers for its fall lineup. So, no matter how many ads you’ve seen for Animal Practice, take heart: The odds are way, way against it.

Do the Olympics Help NBC Shows Find Viewers?