What Makes a Stealth Show

Flying under the pop-culture radar, these programs help keep their networks aloft

During the TV advertising upfronts last spring, CBS held a press briefing early one morning at its Black Rock headquarters in New York. During Leslie Moonves’ remarks, an apparently caffeine-deprived TV critic heard the network chief mention the comedy Yes, Dear. Suddenly roused, the critic piped up: Why had it taken so long for CBS to cancel the show?

Awkward silence. Moonves had just announced that the 20th Century Fox Television show was being renewed for 22 episodes beginning this fall.

Fast-forward to the Nov. 7 issue of The New Yorker. Nancy Franklin, reviewing My Name Is Earl and Everybody Hates Chris, takes a passing swipe at Yes, Dear, calling it “an unpleasant traditional sitcom that has somehow chugged along for five years.”

Not to worry. Just a couple of typical days at the coal mine for Yes, Dear, a member of the club that no one wants to join but that networks would fight to the death to defend. They are the stealth shows of TV: the sitcoms, dramas, clip shows and unscripted fare that might raise nary a blip on the media’s pop-culture-cool-detecting radar but would cause heart attacks in network accounting departments if they met the fate that many critics wish on some of them.

Delivering A Consistent Audience

Stealth shows are shunned by Emmy voters, dismissed by critics (though some shows, especially dramas, are much better received than others) and ignored by assignment editors. But they deliver a consistent audience, longevity and the promise of a lucrative backend—which can do wonders to help cushion the embarrassment they might cause a network promoting itself as the home of quality programming.

In other words, stealth shows like Yes, Dear—and ABC’s America’s Funniest Home Videos, NBC’s Crossing Jordan and a host of others—somehow chug along for years because networks dearly need them.

Not that the network executives show them much love. With promotional budgets especially tight these days and increasingly devoted to a handful of new shows that networks consider their best bets to succeed, the producers of stealth shows are feeling more neglected than ever. Some of the frustrated producers, weary of hoping for promotion that never comes, are devising ways to court viewers on their own. Network executives plead their case by saying that, unlike established series with a solid following, new and second-season shows require the lion’s share of promotion in order to generate the sort of buzz and viewership that ensures their survival.

“They Should Pull Their Head Out And Look Around”

Networks “are wrong-headed in the theory that you only promote the new stuff,” says Lance Heflin, executive producer of Fox’s America’s Most Wanted. “You see Prison Break or House 20 times in a baseball game. You see them to such an extent that, by the time the game is over, I feel like I already watched an entire episode of House. The show is great, but c’mon. I don’t know who the genius is that figured that out, but they should pull their head out and look around. There is room for a lot more promotion of other shows.”

A Fox spokesperson, in response, calls AMW a valuable asset that “has an incredibly loyal audience that has followed it for 19 seasons and knows exactly where and when to find it on the Fox schedule.” Presumably, they also know where to find Cops, also on Fox Saturday night and another stealthy success.

Of course, neither tireless network promotion nor adoring media coverage necessarily translates into success. Fox has plunged lots of capital into Arrested Development over the past two years, and the show luxuriates in rave reviews and admiring media coverage—a recent Lexis-Nexis search for the past 60 days indicates that articles mentioning Arrested Development occurred eight times more often than those referring to Yes, Dear. Yet Arrested Development, on Monday nights, is on Nielsen life-support, while Yes, Dear is pleasing CBS on Wednesdays, building on its Still Standing lead-in by 13% in adults 18-49 and posting a 24% bump up in ratings over the show it replaced, the now-cancelled midweek edition of 60 Minutes.

Despite those healthy signs, Yes, Dear is not a ratings blockbuster and, consequently, did not excite buyers when it went into the syndication market last year. 20th Century had to settle for an all-barter deal in broadcast syndication and getting $75,000 per episode from the TBS cable channel (which famously paid $1 million per episode of Seinfeld). Still, Yes, Dear is in syndication, and it makes a profit. A pleasant development for an “unpleasant” comedy.

“In television, almost all the media and audience attention goes to the top 10 shows or to the programs that get great reviews from critics,” says Mitch Metcalf, executive VP, program planning and scheduling, NBC Entertainment. “Lost in the shuffle are the yeoman-like performers that form the backbone of any network schedule.”

Craig Erwich, executive VP of programming for Fox, says his workhorse shows succeed because “they challenge themselves to improve every year and are constantly striving for innovation.”

Programming executives B&C spoke with offer varying definitions of these backbone programs, but they cite many of the same shows in that category:

  • Fox’s Saturday-night cash cows and reality pioneers America’s Most Wanted (premiered in 1988) and Cops (1989), which have remained relatively stable in adults 18-49 over the past five years, despite facing their usual early-season declines against sports on other networks. In a similar vein: ABC’s versatile clip show America’s Funniest Home Videos (1990).
  • The more recent reality show Fear Factor (2001); NBC’s gross-out hour is returning at 8 p.m. ET Tuesdays next month with a revamped format after ratings erosion last season in its once-powerful 8 p.m. Monday slot.
  • UPN’s Friday Night Smackdown (1999), which has drastically improved the night for UPN this season with young wrestling fans after performing relatively steadily for years on competitive Thursday nights
  • Comedies such as Fox’s animated King of the Hill (1996) on Sunday nights and UPN’s 9 p.m. ET Monday entry Girlfriends (2000)
  • Crime dramas: CBS’ procedural Cold Case (2003) and NBC’s forensic investigative series Crossing Jordan (2001), both facing the thankless task of airing during ABC’s Sunday-night juggernaut (as does The WB’s bewitching Charmed, which has been on the air since 1998). Another stealthily successful crime drama: NBC’s Las Vegas (2003), posting solid numbers (averaging a 4.6 rating/11 share in adults 18-49 this season, an uptick from last year) on Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET.

Kelly Kahl, CBS/UPN executive VP, scheduling and program planning, says that Cold Case “never has a bad week,” pointing to its 3.7 average this season in adults 18-49—a three-year high for the show, despite consistent delays from football doubleheaders. And yet the show has not engendered much media interest, Kahl says, probably because the bounty of procedural dramas on CBS means that the shows “tend to get lumped together by the press.”

Even without the buzz, Madison Avenue has warmed to Cold Case. According to industry estimates, a 30-second spot on Cold Case costs north of $130,000, which is about 10% higher than a spot on the competing, higher-profile West Wing on NBC. A sure sign of Cold Case’s strength, despite the buzz deficit: TNT paid $1.4 million per episode to start syndicating it this season (not long ago, A&E paid a little over $1 million per episode for CSI: Miami).

Kahl calls UPN’s Girlfriends “year-in, year-out, the Rodney Dangerfield” of sitcoms. Respectable female demos at 9 on tough Monday nights and an 18% year-to-year climb from 1.7 to 2.0 in adults 18-34 during the first five weeks of this season help make Girlfriends, according to Kahl, “one of the few UPN success stories”—but not a story you’re necessarily likely to encounter in the press.

The WB Entertainment President David Janollari singles out Charmed as his network’s “workhorse.” The show with the loyal fan base has “set ratings records in every one of the three time periods it’s been in during its long, successful run,” he says. Somehow, the show survived its 1999 appearance in Newsweek, which posted the worst-possible night of programming in an article called “So Much Bad TV, So Little Time.” The show must have a charmed existence: Half a dozen years later, it’s still on the air, although this fall it has suffered a ratings drop of 18% in adults 18-34.

Faced with media indifference and what they perceive as networks taking them for granted, producers of stealth shows are more inclined than ever to air their grievances.

Gary Scott Thompson, executive producer of NBC’s 9 p.m. Monday under-the-radar series Las Vegas, has been alarmed by the network’s huge marketing effort behind launching new shows, such as My Name Is Earl.

“You are trying to program an entire network—and not just a half-hour a week,” Thompson says. “Shoving everything into Earl is not going to save your network.” In fairness, it should be noted that networks today are just copying the tactic of ABC last year, when the network indeed reversed its fortunes with its Hail Mary promotional bet on Desperate Housewives and Lost.

And the lopsided deployment might have unintended side effects, Thompson says. “It absolutely hurts us in the after-market. But it also hurt what we could have done this past season with Raymond [Las Vegas’ former time- slot competition] going off the air. We could have really re-launched the thing.”

Thompson says he is baffled because he is not the only one losing potential income on the show.

“This is an NBC Studios show. They own the thing,” he says. “Every showrunner bitches” about network neglect, he says, “but you would think, given that they do own this, they would want to be behind it.” (NBC did not return calls for comment.)

At America’s Most Wanted, Heflin and his staff resolved to drum up attention for the show on their own.

“A guy who used to be a warden at Folsom Prison once showed me the tools the prisoners had made on their own,” Heflin says. “He said the more we take away from these guys, the more creative they become. We always thought that was the Fox attitude toward us when it comes to promotion.”

One of Heflin’s tactics: using the show’s Web site to get the show noticed. Taking over the site about a year ago, Heflin and his team have invested in it, featuring letters and stories that did not make it on-air. Web traffic in that time has grown from 2 million hits a month to 20 million. “Hopefully, they will spread the word and become our marketers and bring more viewers to the show,” he says.

Emerging content-delivery technologies such as DVD, wireless and, eventually, video-on-demand could also be used to grow AMW, Heflin says. “People may not want to watch a whole program, but people may be interested in a specific investigation. We could provide a smaller amount of information streamed through handheld. That could be big for us.”

AFV Closes In On 360 Episodes

America’s Funniest Home Videos is a classic case of TV stealthiness. The show was an enormous hit when it premiered 15 years ago with what was considered, at the time, the innovative premise of having viewers send in their video of everyday comic moments in their lives. That might seem antiquated now, but the formula created by executive producer Vin Di Bona still works.

AFV is up 21% this season versus a year ago in adults 18-49 (from a 2.4 to a 2.9 rating), despite having been largely ignored for years by the press and the network’s promotion engine. But ABC certainly recognizes the property’s importance: It leads off the network’s valuable Sunday nights. A 30-second spot on AFV fetches a modest $86,302, but that’s still 34% more than the cost of a spot on the competition at NBC’s Dateline.

The 8 p.m. ET Sunday hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has garnered higher ratings when it has aired in the AFV slot, but ABC Entertainment Executive VP Jeff Bader, who heads scheduling and strategy, couldn’t be happier with AFV’s performance.

Since its inception, the show has aired as both a regular series and specials ranging from 30 minutes to two hours, and it hasaired in 10-20 different time periods (accounts vary) on five different nights of the week. Bader points out that, at the end of this season, ABC will have aired more than 360 episodes of AFV—supplanting The Lawrence Welk Show as ABC’s most prolific series.

Debuting the same night as The Simpsons in January 1990—back when there were only 3½ broadcast networks and cable wasn’t much of a factor—AFV finished its first season averaging a 21.1 household rating.

Says Bader, “Take that, American Idol.”