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How a Lead-in Can (and Can't) Affect a Show


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While there are many exceptions, networks tend to air new programs after established hits in order to help them gain an audience. Historically, this generally works if the two shows are compatible but it's not always the case.

Shows Affected By Their Lead-in


The Simpsons boosted Son of Zorn's ratings.
The Futurama crossover boosted The Simpsons' Ratings
In the 2016-17 television season, CBS's The Great Indoors and FOX's Son of Zorn could only retain around 50-60% of their seemingly compatible lead-ins, those lead-ins were The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons respectively. It's not a surprise that both shows were canceled earlier this month. Despite poor retention, both comedies were some of the highest-rated series to be axed because of how strong their lead-ins were. The Great Indoors averaged a 1.4 in the 18-49 ratings while Son of Zorn managed a 1.3, both against a 1.2 league average. The true strength of these shows was revealed as the size of their lead-in declined. For Son of Zorn, the series collapsed to just a 0.6 in the 18-49 demo for its penultimate episode. Sure, its Simpsons lead-in also declined, but the latter still had a digestible 1.0 while Zorn could barely retain 60% of it. That 0.6 rating was less than half of what the comedy was averaging in the fall. While The Simpsons is also boosted by a lead-in (that being football), there's a difference between Zorn and Simpsons. The yellow family can still pull respectable ratings without being inflated while Zorn simply can not. Similarly, The Great Indoors crashed when CBS decided to air the final two episodes on Monday after Superior Donuts instead of Thursday after The Big Bang Theory. No one was expected The Great Indoors to do well, but it managed a meager 0.7 for its finale and lost two-tenths from its Superior Donuts lead-in. To put things into perspective, that 0.7 was 42% below its Thursday low. Things got even more ridiculous as The Great Indoors aired a repeat on Thursday, May 18th (despite already being canceled) and improved 43% from its finale to a 1.0. This made it even more clear just how much the series needed a massive Big Bang Theory lead-in to do well. Overall, both Son of Zorn and The Great Indoors are textbook cases of shows that don't have a stable audience and rely on their lead-ins to inflate (or deflate) them.

On the other hand, ABC's Speechless and American Housewife are positive examples of shows affected by their lead-ins. Both retained the bulk of their lead-ins, The Goldbergs and The Middle respectively, and both were renewed for second seasons. The latter was even rewarded with a timeslot upgrade by getting to air after a stronger Modern Family. While both shows performed well, they still grew and fell with their lead-ins. From February 8th to May 17th, Speechless lost two-tenths from its Goldbergs lead-in for every airing. When its Goldbergs lead-in was at a robust 1.8, it was at a strong 1.6, and when The Goldbergs was at a mediocre 1.3, Speechless was at a passable 1.1. This isn't to say that Speechless is a flop like the examples listed above. The series holds a good amount of its lead-in and has even shown that it can hold its own without The Goldbergs. Still, it's clear that the series soars with its lead-in, but also falls with it. American Housewife is a similar, but slightly better case. On average, the series has lost just a tenth from its Middle lead-in and has even grown from it at times. The finale tied its Middle lead-in, so it's understandable why it's getting a timeslot upgrade and not Speechless. While American Housewife has done a good bit better than Speechless, the series still rises and falls as The Middle does, so it's clear that it isn't lead-in independent. Nevertheless, both shows are strong performers for the network and will someday likely be lead-ins themselves.


Shows NOT Affected By Their Lead-ins


Will Forte and Kristen Schaal in Season 1 of Fox's The Last Man on Earth
For the most part, a drama will not be affected by a comedy lead-in while a comedy won't be affected by a drama lead-in. ABC's Designated Survivor is a textbook case of a drama that does not gain or lose anything from its comedy lead-in. The series began its run on September 21, 2016, at 10 pm with a strong 2.2 in the 18-49 ratings. It grew two-tenths from its comedy lead-in, Black-ish, which had a 2.0. Fast-forward to October 26, and the series has fallen off a cliff, managing just a 1.2. In this airing, it lost a whopping five-tenths from its Black-ish lead-in. The series definitely looks a lot worse here, but that's only because it has dropped on its own accord.and not due to its lead-in rising or falling. Also, a 1.2 at 10 pm is certainly still a solid performance so it's not much of a problem. It became even more clear that the series wasn't affected by Black-ish when it returned from hiatus in March and managed a 1.1 despite Black-ish airing a repeat and not an original. That repeat of Black-ish managed a 0.8, so Designated Survivor grew three-tenths from it. The following week it kept that same 1.1 despite Black-ish having a 1.5. To recap, Designated Survivor didn't lose or gain anything despite its lead-in growing seven-tenths, or 88%, week-to-week. Designated Survivor is a serialized drama while Black-ish is a family comedy, so it makes sense that they wouldn't share the same audience. ABC decided to move American Housewife to Wednesdays at 9:30 for the 2017-18 television season, we'll see how this affects Designated Survivor, but I'm almost certain that the lead-in will not hurt or help the Kiefer Sutherland drama.

On the other side of the spectrum, FOX's The Last Man on Earth doesn't fit into any of these categories as the series is a comedy that didn't seem to benefit from its comedy lead-in this season. While the Will Forte comedy had great Family Guy retention in its first and second season, it was a much different case in season 3. On October 2, 2016, the series managed a decent 1.0 rating for its second episode airing after Family Guy. The only problem was that Family Guy had a 1.7, so the retention looked very ugly. The previous year, Family Guy had that same 1.7 for its second episode, but Last Man had a 1.5. Falling 33% year-to-year while your lead-in is steady is an absolutely terrible result. But, one month later, Family Guy had a 1.2 while The Last Man on Earth clocked in at a 0.9. Compared to the October airing, Family Guy fell five-tenths while the post-apocalyptic comedy lost just one tenth. The Last Man on Earth continued being relatively steady throughout the fall, always in the 0.9-1.1 range. The fall finale yet again had poor retention as it managed just a 0.9 after a 1.4 Family Guy. It seemed like that was it for the series and that ratings would only go lower in the spring, but after a long hiatus, the series returned in March up one tenth to a 1.0 demo while it's Family Guy lead-in was a lower 1.2. That's the same 1.0 the series got when Family Guy was at a 1.7! The series was relatively steady throughout the spring, staying in the 0.8-1.0 range and was ultimately renewed. It did end up falling to 0.7 for its finale airing out of a much lower rated Making History, so it still might not be entirely independent, but for the most part, it seems that this serialized comedy has become lead-in independent. Fox decided to keep the series after Family Guy for the 2017-18 season, so they definitely see the series as a respectable performer even if it doesn't always great retention from its lead-in.
NBC premieres many of their programs after
The Voice in order to give them more exposure. 

One of the most recent examples of a non-serialized comedy that isn't affected by its lead-in is NBC's Great News. Despite averaging just a 0.8 in the 18-49 ratings, NBC decided to renew the series for a second season and give it a timeslot upgrade. This was a massive shock due to how poorly it did. In its second airing on May 2, 2017, the series averaged just a 0.7 after The Voice, the latter had a strong 1.6. That's less than half of its lead-in. A 0.7 is terrible in general, but after a 1.6, it's disastrous. Two weeks later, it did a 0.7 for its first half-hour and a 0.6 for its second airing after The Voice. Yet again, the series retained less than 50% of its lead-in. NBC scheduled the season finale at 8 pm instead of 9 pm. For this airing, it would not get a strong lead-in. Surprisingly, the series was actually up from its last airing, despite having to stand on its own. It's very likely that an old-skewing reality series had very little effect on a young-skewing comedy. Great News will get to air after a comedy this season, that comedy being the revival of Will & Grace. I wouldn't be surprised if the series improves a good bit, but I also wouldn't be surprised if it backfires. Nevertheless, having a comedy leading into a comedy is a lot better than having a reality show leading into a comedy.


Recap

 It's not the size of the lead-in that matters, but how compatible it is with the show in question. But, just because a show has a strong, compatible lead-in doesn't mean it'll do well.With serialized dramas, it's best to give them exposure earlier on, because it's unlikely that they'll end up building an audience in season 2 (see Quantico). Networks simply have to take a gamble. Sometimes they'll work (American Housewife) and sometimes they won't (The Great Indoors), but that's just how it is in the ratings game.


Below are the full ratings for each series mentioned above.

The Great Indoors

American Housewife

Designated Survivor

Black-ish

Speechless

The Big Bang Theory

The Last Man on Earth

The Middle

The Goldbergs

Son of Zorn

The Simpsons

Family Guy

Great News

The Voice (Tuesday)


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