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August 29, 2015

The Five: Big hits with humble beginnings

by Joel Keller, posted Nov 28th 2006 10:03AM
Everybody Loves RaymondIt's quite ironic that on Sunday night, ABC aired an episode of Boston Legal in the 10 PM time slot and called it a "special time." Most people forget this, but as my brother Rich pointed out in his review of the episode, Sunday at 10 was the show's original time slot, until the network put a new medical show called Grey's Anatomy into that slot in late March 2005.

The intention was to air Grey's in that slot for a few weeks, help it get an audience, then move it to another slot and bring BL back to Sundays at 10. Of course, we all know what happened: Grey's ratings surpassed those of BL, rendering William Shatner and James Spader temporarily homeless. And the audience just kept steadily building until it became the top-rated show on television.

Even though that was less than two years ago, it still amazes me how little fanfare Grey's had when it arrived on the scene, especially compared to the hype many of this fall's pilots got even before one episode aired. There's precedent to this of course, even in this "perform or else" era of program development, a few shows have come out of nowhere to become big hits, despite the fact that they started off slowly or their networks failed to promote them. Here are some other past and present examples of shows that started with little attention and became huge hits:

1. CSI - It's spawned two direct spin-offs and inspired a slew of procedural shows, but viewers forget that this show started on Fridays when it premired on CBS in 2000. According to my fellow Squadder Brett, the Tiffany network was hyping its remake of The Fugitive, with Tim Daly and Mykelti Williamson, which tanked before the season was out. Meanwhile, William Peterson, Marg Helgenberger and company were getting pretty good ratings on what is usually a sleepy TV night. When CBS moved the show to Thursdays at 9 in February 2001 (paired up with Survivor, which was moved from Wednesdays), the show's ratings took off, bettering NBC's once-vaunted "Must-See TV" lineup almost immediately. The show's been at the top of the ratings ever since.

2. M*A*S*H - Most people my age remember the exact time slot M*A*S*H was in: Mondays at 9. It seemed like it occupied that slot on CBS's schedule for its entire run. But it didn't hit that time slot until midway through the sixth season, in 1978; in fact, it moved around a lot, going from Sunday to Saturday to Tuesday to Friday, finally settling back on Tuesday at 9 during its fourth season. That's because the ratings were pretty low up until that time. But once they picked up during season four, they stayed high, culminating in the show's finale, which to this day is the most-watched series episode of all time.

3. Seinfeld - This show was such an oddball idea -- where does a stand-up comedian get his material? -- that the prime-time division didn't even produce the show; through its entire run, NBC classified it as a "late night" show because that's the division that produced it. It started with the pilot, which aired in the summer of 1989; then four episodes aired in the summer of 1990. Then 13 episodes aired starting in January 1991. None of them got great ratings. But NBC was patient with the show; Season Three was the first one to get a full slate of 22 episodes, and it finally started picking up ratings at the end of that season. By the middle of it's fourth season, it had moved from Wednesdays to Thursdays, and it was on its way to becoming legendary.

4. Everybody Loves Raymond - This was another show that CBS decided to inauspiciously debut on Fridays, a night where the only sitcoms that did well were ones that had cute kids (Full House) or people with silly voices (Perfect Strangers, Family Matters). Traditional sitcoms about adults, especially older adults, were not exactly the rage in 1996; the show finished ranked in 82nd place. But the network, prodded by Bill Cosby, decided to stick with the show and moved it to Monday late in its first season, and the ratings slowly picked up, peaking in the sixth season. By the time the show was over, Ray Romano was an Emmy winner and the highest-paid sitcom star on TV. He should pay Cosby a commission.

5. Cheers
- If NBC wasn't in such crappy shape when Cheers started in 1982, we may have never seen more than one season of this all-time classic. Its lousy ratings on Thursdays -- it came in 72nd place for the season -- didn't phase the network at all; they knew they had a quality show on their hands and wanted to build a night around the show (eventually, Family Ties and Night Court would move to Thursdays, and we all know what happened when The Cosby Show premiered). Again, this was a show that chugged along, getting increasingly better ratings, until it hit #1 in 1990.

I know there are other shows that started this way. If you have any good candidates, let me know in the comments.

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Well, I hope "Friday Night Lights" becomes one of those shows.

December 04 2006 at 1:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jessy Scholl

I agree, but everybody is also forgetting about Gilmore Girls as well. It was buried on Thursdays its first season with Friends and later Survivor as more competition. It only started taking off after the move to Tuesdays and the pairing with Smallville. Also, another recent show that had a slow start was House on Fox, and that only perked up with American Idol as the lead-in. As for reality shows being buried in the summer, CBS did expect Survivor to be a hit, but they were only expecting a modest boost in what is usually a dead time of the season. You have to remember that Survivor was actually an answer to ABC's Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

December 02 2006 at 12:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You act like Grey's just came out of nowhere and got no push, it was put behind the biggest self-starter in the past decade: Desperate Housewives. It wasn't exactly buried on Saturday nights.

November 29 2006 at 12:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

grey's anatomy got a huge push from ABC. i remember those comercials made up about 50% of whatever show i watched weekly before it started? (1st season of Lost maybe?)

anyways, they did so many ads that i refused to watch the show for that exact reason. then i watched an episode over thanksgiving, and think i made the right choice.

November 28 2006 at 8:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was never a big fan of JAG, but it did well only after it switched networks from NBC to CBS.

Look at Baywatch, after being cancelled by NBC, it sufaced years later in syndication and became a huge hit.

Some shows gain popularity after they've achieved 100 episodes and enter syndication, then find a new audience.

November 28 2006 at 4:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

All In The Family

ABC aired the pilot and then nixed the idea, CBS bought the rights and the show was ranked #34 after it's first season.

November 28 2006 at 3:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I caught Law and Order first on A&E which started reruns during Season 2 or 3. 11pm, five nights a week. I watched it there then started watching it on NBC. Back then I never had seen a show being rerun on cable while a show was still on air, but it really worked for Law and Order.

November 28 2006 at 3:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Allen Mendelsohn

How about Survivor? Its first season actually ran during the summer - no vote of confidence there. At the time, reality shows were new, and they were hit and miss. No one had any clue what Survivor would become.

November 28 2006 at 2:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This list serves as a reminder to just how quickly networks are these days to cancel shows before they even have a chance to gather an audience. I mean, how many shows have been cancelled this season after maybe two or three episodes?! That's why I am often surprised when a network chooses to stick with a show. A good example of this is CBS' How I Met Your Mother -- a show that gets crappy ratings but has the potential, I think, to be a real break out hit given time. The fact that CBS sticks with it still surprises me. The show could really benefit from a great lead-in. I say move Old Christine to 8pm and Mother to 9pm after Two and a Half Men.

November 28 2006 at 1:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I really don't know any of the details, but what about the Law and Order franchise? Didn't it take years for L&O to take off? Now there are L&O's all over the place.

November 28 2006 at 12:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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