By Emmanuel Morgan
Some of the most precious television real estate comes immediately after the NFL’s season finale, one of the few programs to still corral a giant audience.
The network that airs the Super Bowl wants to retain as many of those viewers — 115 million people last year — as possible with the postgame slot. It has been a powerful tool to debut shows, as CBS will do on Sunday with “Tracker,” a crime drama about the hunt for missing people that stars Justin Hartley, and it has also showcased already popular ones, such as NBC did in 1996 with “Friends.”
Either strategy can prove effective.
“It’s really a year-by-year basis when you have the Super Bowl and to think, ‘What are the different weapons you have to deploy?’” said Amy Reisenbach, president of CBS Entertainment.
For nearly two decades, the Super Bowl has cycled among Fox, NBC and CBS. (In 2027, ABC will air its first Super Bowl since 2006.) “There isn’t really any other platform like it on TV,” Reisenbach said, adding, “It’s a huge opportunity to get eyeballs.”
Networks plan out the postgame slot about a year ahead of time, said Dan Harrison, the executive vice president of program planning and content strategy at Fox Entertainment.
CBS chose “Tracker” in May, Reisenbach said, after executives viewed the pilot episode and felt it could appeal across demographics because of Hartley’s popularity with both men and women. The decision to debut a new show follows the strategy CBS used for “Undercover Boss” (2010) and for its two most recent Super Bowl lead-outs, “The World’s Best” (2019) and “The Equalizer” (2021).
The results varied. “The World’s Best” garnered 22.2 million viewers and was not renewed for a second season. “Undercover Boss” amassed nearly 39 million viewers and ran for 11 seasons.
Fox has more recently used its post-Super Bowl slot to highlight shows that have a built-in audience. Last year, it debuted the second season of the Gordon Ramsay cooking show “Next Level Chef”; in 2020 it opened the third season of “The Masked Singer.”
“You want to make sure that you’re comfortable serving viewers something that they already know that they like and something that advertisers want to be in,” said Harrison, who previously worked for CBS and NBC. “That single episode will be the highest-rated entertainment telecast of the year.”
Even though the first episode of “The Equalizer” drew 20.4 million viewers after the Super Bowl in 2021, CBS still chose to use this year’s spot for “Tracker.” The network will debut the fourth season of “The Equalizer,” along with much of its returning lineup, in the week after the game.
CBS kicked off new seasons of the reality show “Survivor” in 2001 and 2004, and NBC aired a special one-hour episode of the hit sitcom “The Office” in 2009.
But NBC’s placement of “Friends” after the Super Bowl in 1996 is perhaps the most successful use of this strategy. The network elongated that episode to an hour and packed it with major guest stars such as Julia Roberts and Brooke Shields. Almost 53 million viewers tuned in, the highest-rated post-Super Bowl show ever.
“They made an event of a show that was already big, which was amazing and it just supercharged it,” said Andrew Goldman, an adjunct instructor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and a former HBO executive.
NBC declined to comment.
While networks typically want to capture as broad of an audience as possible after the Super Bowl, sometimes they take risks.
In 1999, Fox debuted the adult animation show “Family Guy,” which was canceled after its third season for poor ratings before being rejuvenated on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming, and then bouncing back to Fox, where its run continues.
In 2022, an overlap of global sporting events allowed NBC to air the Winter Olympics in Beijing directly after the Super Bowl. That Olympics broadcast received 21.2 million viewers, but Goldman thinks that decision was unwise.
“When there’s an opportunity to introduce people to a new creative, you should do it to create a collective zeitgeist,” Goldman said. “People the next day will talk about, ‘Hey did you see the Super Bowl,’ and then, ‘Hey, did you see that new show?’”
Even platforms without NFL television rights have tried to capitalize on the interest around the Super Bowl. In 2018, Netflix aired an ad during the game for the previously unannounced science fiction film “The Cloverfield Paradox,” which it released for streaming after the Lombardi Trophy was lifted.