The big lead-in theory: Fall TV time slots trumping buzz

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So far, nearly every new show with big ratings this fall has something in common: An even bigger show airing right before it.

CBS’ The Crazy Ones and The Millers, NBC’s The Blacklist, ABC’s The Goldbergs and Super Fun Night were not the fall’s most buzzy titles and only The Blacklist averaged firmly positive reviews, according to Metacritic. But along with the sophomore season of NBC’s Chicago Fire, these shows have generated some of the best ratings we’ve seen so far this season while standing comfortably in the shadow of even larger lead-ins.

Crazy Ones and Millers had massive Big Bang Theory support, Blacklist and Chicago Fire benefited hugely from The Voice, Super Fun Night had back-up from Modern Family and Goldbergs is coming out of top-rated new drama Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — which was one of only two new shows at this point to really notably break out without the benefit of a larger opening act (the other is Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, which has a lead-in from Bones).

Meanwhile a couple buzzy new shows with some of the best reviews of the fall — Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine and CBS’ Hostages — have struggled for attention with soft lead-ins.

This is not what you might expect in 2013. Nearly half of Nielsen homes have DVRs, and playback is boosting nearly every show’s ratings significantly. Yet so far, the best predictor of how well a show will perform is still the same one networks used in the 1980s — the good ‘ol schedule grid.

To some extent, there’s a degree of self-fulfilling prophecy going on here. Networks tend to give their best new shows the best lead-ins, so why shouldn’t they also have the best ratings? Yet there’s little doubt that at least some of these performances are strongly lead-in driven. Does anybody think critically drubbed Super Fun Night or The Millers would have delivered half as large of an audience if they had a lead-in from Parks and Recreation on NBC?

The issue for networks is that strong performances propped up by a bigger show often don’t last too long. Witness the way NBC’s Revolution kept declining despite The Voice last season. The Goldbergs definitely took a hit for its second episode Tuesday night after S.H.I.E.L.D. likewise declined, and The Crazy Ones dropped some without Big Bang. The next few weeks should reveal which of these shows are drawing their own fans, and which are merely borrowing them from somebody else.

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