The Olympic Myth
March 3rd, 2010
I really should have written this post in advance so I could post it as soon as the headlines started to hit, but alas I held out hope that perhaps we could disconnect ourselves from that particular response to solid, but unspectacular, ratings for NBC’s Parenthood.
This myth that the Olympics are some sort of magical promotional tool is not without some merit, in that NBC used a lot of their airtime with a huge captive audience in order to promote the arrival of this new series, but the intense expectation it places on a show is honestly not worth the trouble. The Olympics promotion is not only supposed to increase a show’s chances at success, but it is also expected to create an audience which may not actually exist, whitewashing any of the other problems that the show might face (whether it be timeslot competition, the lack of a compatible lead-in, etc.).
It’s a situation where you have to wonder: would the show have been better off debuting to lower numbers without the hype, just so that the show might have been seen as a mild disappointment instead of another failure of NBC’s network strategy?
Since Josef Adalain has already posted an analysis of the various potential scenarios for Parenthood at The Wrap, I’m going to add this little wrinkle to the mix: in Canada, it “worked.” CTV’s new comedy series Hiccups and Dan for Mayor debuted to huge numbers (1.9 Million viewers) on Monday night after heavy Olympics promotion, which could be seen as proof that with the right show Olympics promotion can result in big numbers.
Except that people tend to focus on the “Olympic Promotion” rather than “Right Show” part of that equation.
Parenthood is NBC’s first 10pm Drama series in nine months. Parenthood is competing against the year’s most successful new original drama series, The Good Wife. Parenthood features actors who are well-respected but not inherently popular (Graham, Krause, etc.). No amount of Olympic promotion can change the fact that this isn’t a show which faces anything but an uphill battle, charged to simultaneously herald the return of 10pm dramas on NBC while facing stiff competition without any sort of real competitive edge. The Biggest Loser is one of the “best” lead-ins that NBC has thanks to its big ratings, but it isn’t particularly compatible with a show like this, and no amount of promotion is going to change that or any of the above facts.
Whereas, for the sake of comparison, Hiccups and Dan for Mayor are very different monsters. They feature alumni from Corner Gas, CTV’s highly most successful original series that ended before it entirely wore out its welcome with its core viewership. They were also debuting on a night when Canada’s biggest show, House, was in repeats. Even if the show had not had the Olympics bump, the shows were built for success, and there are less challenges launching half-hour comedies (even though, impressively, they kept the audience throughout the entire hour) which require less commitment.
My point is that if you were to take these two shows and launch them without Olympics promotion, the Canadian shows would be expected to be a hit while expectations would be pretty low for Parenthood. When we’re gauging their success or failure after the fact, making the Olympics promotion out to be the point seems like an excuse to attack the network at the expense of the show. Parenthood drew a pretty respectable audience on the “new” NBC, where standards are down and where they are starting from scratch in a lot of ways, but yet the show is being punished for not being the saviour that so many expected it to be, and that its intense promotion wanted to turn it into.
NBC should be happy, really: The Good Wife’s ratings were down to some of its lower numbers in the key demos, Parenthood retained its demo rating at the half-hour mark, and it kept 94% of its lead-in. All of these metrics are good news for the show, but because of the promotion they are all being underwritten by the concern that it “should have been better.” I understand that NBC needs a hit, that they’re running on fumes at a network which once had plenty of gas in the tank, but I don’t think that Parenthood should be trapped in this narrative of desperation, the latest failure of NBC’s promotional machine instead of a good show with a respectable initial audience that, if it stays, would make the show a solid performer for a network that needs reliability more than hype at this particular point in time.
Yes, the Olympics hype created high expectations for Parenthood, but is it fair to ignore how we normally measure a show’s success? Is it not logical to withhold judgment until we see how it retains its audience next week, or how it retains its audience once V makes the timeslot a three-horse race at the end of the month? The Olympics threatens to turn a show’s success into a one-week sprint, ignoring that ratings are a marathon, opportunities for shows to build up goodwill over time – as Adalain points out on Twitter, Glee debuted behind an American Idol lead-in to numbers not that far from what they ended up drawing in its first season, holding onto that much-hyped audience against the odds.
I get that we like to rag on NBC, and I get that their Olympics promotion is easy fodder for critics of the network. But as much as I enjoy criticizing NBC’s failings, Parenthood debuted with a solid demo number in a tough timeslot and kept a majority of its not entirely compatible lead-in – until next week, any judgment of the show is premature and besides the point. It’s one thing to analyze its success, but it’s another to brush it aside as a failure without any logical reason beyond sour grapes.
I have Hiccups and Dan for Mayor sitting on the DVR: I was just finishing up some revisions on my thesis chapter about Corner Gas, so I wanted to get that done before diving into them.
I’m not suggesting that NBC’s Olympics campaigning has been entirely successful, both in terms of the campaign they created (which reduced the show a bit) and in terms of whether it was worth the substantial loss they took on broadcasting the games. However, neither of those qualities really has much to do with the show itself, so I think separating those arguments from the show’s fate seems logical (if impossible, for some).