The Post-Super Bowl Time Slot Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Premiering after the Super Bowl leads to some big expectations that few TV shows can reach.

“Springland” – As Colter helps a young woman locate her free-spirited sister, he digs deeper into how the sister’s last days may lead to a dark secret she unearthed in this tight-knit town, on the CBS Original series TRACKER, Sunday, Feb. 25 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network, and streaming on Paramount+ (live and on demand for Paramount+ with SHOWTIME subscribers, or on demand for Paramount+ Essential subscribers the day after the episode airs)*.
Photo: Michael Courtney | CBS

Believe it or not but the Super Bowl wasn’t always the major media event that it is today.

Before network executives fully understood Americans’ passion for football, the NFL’s championship game received no special treatment. In fact, NBC and CBS didn’t even bother to save their broadcasts of Super Bowl I, recording over the tapes with soap operas. One of the most consequential sporting events in North American history could have become lost media if it weren’t for a handful of fans who made their own bootleg copies.

By now, however, everyone is keenly aware that the most widely-viewed American TV broadcast every year will inevitably be the Super Bowl. Last year’s matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles was the most-watched telecast ever with an average of 115.1 million viewers tuning in across all platforms. There’s every reason to believe that this year’s contest between the Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers will achieve similar numbers.

That level of popularity has obviously made the Super Bowl a big get for whichever of the four major TV networks (Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS) snags the rights to it. The Super Bowl isn’t just a way to get millions of people to watch your network, it’s a way to advertise your network’s other offerings to new consumers. Not everyone is going to turn their TV off the moment the game clock strikes zero. Plenty of folks will stick around to see what comes on next. And therein lies the opportunity to highlight a current show or launch a new one with a nice head start.

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While that all makes sense in theory, there’s a secret about the post-Super Bowl time slot that the networks don’t want you to know: it’s far from a guarantee of success. Whether its poor curation of content or the curse of outsized expectations from inflated pilot numbers, TV shows that premiere right after the Super Bowl don’t often go on to receive a second season. Don’t believe us? Check out the handy chart below.

January 21, 1979Brothers and SistersNBCOne season, 12 episodes
January 30, 1983The A-TeamNBCFive seasons, 98 episodes
January 22, 1984AirwolfCBSFour seasons, 79 episodes
January 20, 1985MacGruder and LoudABCOne season, 15 episodes
January 26, 1986The Last PrecinctNBCOne season eight episodes
January 25, 1987Hard CopyCBSOne season, 10 episodes
January 31, 1988The Wonder YearsABCSix seasons, 115 episodes
January 28, 1990Grand SlamCBSOne season, eight episodes
January 27, 1991Davis RulesABCTwo seasons, 29 episodes
January 31, 1993Homicide: Life on the StreetNBCSeven seasons, 122 episodes
January 30, 1994The Good LifeNBCOne season, 13 episodes
January 29, 1995ExtremeABCOne season, 13 episodes
January 31, 1999Family GuyFox22 seasons, 418 episodes
February 6, 2005American Dad!Fox20 seasons, 366 episodes
February 7, 2010Undercover BossCBS11 seasons, 136 episodes
February 5, 201724: LegacyFoxOne season, 12 episodes
February 3, 2019The World’s BestCBSOne season, 12 episodes
February 7, 2021The EqualizerCBSThree seasons, 46 episodes

By our count, 18 new TV shows have premiered their first episode after a Super Bowl and of those 18, only nine (or 50%) reached anything resembling long-term success. In this case, we’re interpretting “success” as merely a second season. Even that is a pretty liberal definition though. If we exclude shows that did receive second seasons but didn’t make any kind of longterm cultural impact (Airwolf, Davis Rules, The Equalizer) then the post-Super Bowl time slot’s success rate goes down to 33%.

Per some studies (albeit dated ones), this number is consistent with the 20-35% rate that the average network series faces even without boost of a super-sized audience for its first episode. Why then, do networks continually perceive the post-Super Bowl slot as a good spot to debut new shows? The answer to that question is that, increasingly, they don’t.

In the 21st century, networks have used the Super Bowl to premiere a fresh show only five times, most recently with 2021’s The Equalizer. Instead, many networks of late have opted to air “special” episodes of their existing programming to both reward current fans and try to appeal to new ones. Due to all the statistical noise surrounding viewership numbers in the cable and streaming age, it’s hard to pinpoint whether this leads to a noticeable increase in ratings. What is clear, however, is that it does lead to some great episodes of television. Just glance at the impressive list below.

January 28, 1996FriendsThe One After the Superbowl”NBC
January 26, 1997The X-Files“Leonard Betts”Fox
January 25, 19983rd Rock from the Sun“36! 24! 36! Dick”NBC
January 30, 2000The Practice“New Evidence”ABC
February 3, 2002Malcolm in the Middle“Company Picnic”Fox
January 26, 2003Alias“Phase One”ABC
February 1, 2004Survivor: All-Stars“They’re Back!”CBS
February 5, 2006Grey’s Anatomy“It’s the End of the World”ABC
February 4, 2007Criminal Minds“The Big Game”CBS
February 3, 2008House“Frozen”Fox
February 1, 2009The Office“Stress Relief”NBC
February 6, 2011Glee“The Sue Sylvester Shuffler”Fox
February 3, 2013Elementary“The Deductionist”CBS
February 2, 2014New Girl“Prince”Fox
February 2, 2014Brooklyn Nine-Nine“Operation: Broken Feather”Fox
February 1, 2015The Blacklist“Luther Braxton (Part 1)”NBC
February 4, 2018This Is Us“Super Bowl Sunday”NBC

That’s a pretty impressive batch of TV episodes right there, including a Grey’s Anatomy classic and an Office installment that featured one of the best cold opens over.

This year, CBS is going to play it risky by using its post-Super Bowl slot to premiere its new show Tracker. Starring Justin Hartley (Kevin Pearson on This Is Us) and based on a book character created by Jeffrey Deaver (who also created the character Lincoln Rhyme), Tracker follows survivalist Colter Shaw (Hartley) as he uses his tracking skills to travel the country and solve mysteries.

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Like The Equalizer before it, Tracker has some elements in play that could help it buck the underperformance trend for post-Super Bowl shows: a charismatic star, an easy premise, and CBS’s built-in audience of procedural-lovers. If history is any indication though, Tracker will go the way of MacGruder and Loud, Hard Copy, and The Good Life. That is to say – nowhere at all.