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A Taxonomy of Super Bowl Lead-Out Programs

From The Wonder Years to This Is Us, networks have long sought to capitalize on the game's huge audience.
  • Photos: Warner Bros, CBS, NBC, ABC
    Photos: Warner Bros, CBS, NBC, ABC

    In a TV landscape that increasingly relies on live TV events for ratings, there is no more valuable real estate on the calendar than the Super Bowl. The annual pro football championship game routinely draws the biggest audience of the year, and since the Super Bowl routinely ends around 10:00 PM on the East Coast, it can bring that giant audience to whatever program the network wants to air after it. Which is why those networks — a revolving door that currently includes NBC, CBS, and FOX — have taken to giving that lead-out slot to either their biggest shows or their most anticipated premieres. This year CBS is airing the game, and they're using the opportunity to launch their remake of The Equalizer, starring Queen Latifah.

    Over the years the Super Bowl lead-out slot has evolved from largely an afterthought to one of the most important time slots of the year. What began as just another Lassie episode has since included game-changing TV episodes, highly anticipated premieres, and (just once) Prince. In the name of science, we've broken down the various ways networks have used the time period into 12 handy categories:

    Just a Regular Episode

    Unsurprisingly, a look at the early history of Super Bowl lead-out programs reveals an athletic-entertainment complex that hadn't emerged yet. Three of the first four Super Bowl broadcasts were followed by a regular old episode of Lassie. That was true for the very first Super Bowl in 1967, which was the only game to be broadcast simultaneously on two networks: CBS followed it with Lassie, while NBC opted for an episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. It was the first of two times that NBC would capitalize on its partnership with Disney for a lead-out; they did it again after Super Bowl VII with an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney. Simply put, the platform for networks to air big TV episodes after the Super Bowl wasn't as big of a thing in the late '60s through the '70s. After Super Bowl VIII in 1974, CBS aired local news before an episode of The New Perry Mason. In 1981, NBC aired a rerun of the previous week's episode of CHiPs. In the modern era, only twice have networks opted to air just a regular episode of an already established show after the Super Bowl: House on FOX in 2008, and Elementary on CBS in 2013, and even that House episode featured the flashy gimmick of Dr. House having to diagnose a life-threatening mystery illness over video phone.

    Sports After Sports

    Some of those early years saw the networks following a three-plus-hour football game with … even more sports. Super Bowls V and X both were followed by professional golf. NBC's first solo Super Bowl in 1968 was followed up by the G.E. College Bowl, which sounds like another football game but was actually a quiz program.

    The Newsmakers

    A good number of times, networks have just aired news programming after the game. NBC followed up Super Bowl IX in 1975 with a regular installment of NBC Nightly News, while CBS opted to air episodes of its crown jewel newsmagazine 60 Minutes after four different Super Bowls, in 1972, 1980, 1982, and in 1992 — the last one featuring the show's blockbuster interview with Bill and Hillary Clinton in the wake of the Gennifer Flowers adultery accusations.

    TV Movies and Miniseries

    In 1977, NBC followed up Super Bowl XI with Raid on Entebbe, a TV movie starring Peter Finch and Charles Bronson that dramatized the very recent terrorist hijacking of an Air France flight and the subsequent stand-off in Uganda. This marked the first time that the Super Bowl lead-out slot was used for event programming. Somewhat less compelling was NBC's Brotherhood of the Rose — a two-part miniseries starring Robert Mitchum — which aired its first installment after Super Bowl XXIII.

    The Memorable Premieres

    By the 1980s, the networks — which eventually included ABC — figured out that the Super Bowl's big ratings were something to be capitalized on, so they began to use it as a launching pad for new series, many of which became successful. The A-Team aired its first regular episode (it premiered as a two-hour TV movie the previous week) on NBC right after the Miami Dolphins toppled the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVII. The next year, CBS premiered Airwolf's two-hour pilot episode. ABC launched The Wonder Years right after Super Bowl XII, and NBC used the occasion of the Dallas Cowboys walloping the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII to premiere Tom Fontana's acclaimed Homicide: Life on the Street. FOX twice premiered brand new animated programs after the Super Bowl: in 1999 with Family Guy, and again in 2005 with American Dad.

    The Unmemorable Premieres

    Of course, they can't all be winners, and for every hit show that used the Super Bowl platform to springboard into the hall of fame, there's been at least one belly flop. NBC's Brothers and Sisters, a frat-house comedy meant to capitalize on the success of Animal House at the movies, was the first show to air a pilot after the Super Bowl, in 1979. The show only lasted 12 episodes and is now forgotten by history. ABC's first-ever Super Bowl, in 1985, was used to launch MacGruder and Loud, an Aaron Spelling-produced cop drama where two married cops (Malcolm MacGruder and Jenny Loud, of course) who had to keep their relationship a secret. That show also didn't make it out of its first season. The litany of fully forgotten — NBC's The Last Precinct (8 episodes), CBS's Hard Copy (8 episodes, not to be confused with the tabloid newsmagazine of the same name), CBS's Grand Slam (6 episodes), NBC's The Good Life (13 episodes) — or mostly forgotten shows, like the Jonathan Winters sitcom Davis Rules, is significant. Most recently, FOX attempted to reboot 24 with 24: Legacy in 2017, while CBS's reality show The World's Best in 2019 also failed to achieve greatness

    The Football-Themed Episodes

    As the years went on and the post-Super Bowl timeslot got more and more prestigious, the shows selected to air after the Lombardi Trophy presentation began to tailor their episodes to the occasion. One way many shows did this was by making football or Super Bowl-themed episodes. After Super Bowl XII on CBS, All in the Family aired an episode where a pair of robbers hold up Archie's bar on Super Bowl Sunday. In the '90s, Third Rock from the Sun and The Simpsons aired episodes where characters either watched or attended the Super Bowl. CBS's Criminal Minds followed the Indianapolis Colts' slaughter of the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI with an episode where a couple is murdered on the night of the Super Bowl. And Glee's post-Super Bowl episode in 2011 was a football-themed musical extravaganza.

    The Reality Shows

    The Reality TV boom of the 2000s also made its mark among post-Super Bowl lead-outs. Survivor premiered two of its most anticipated seasons — Season 2 in the Australian Outback and Season 8's first All-Stars season — after Super Bowls XXXV and XXXVIII, respectively. CBS also used the Super Bowl slot to premiere Undercover Boss in 2010. More recently, the post-Super Bowl slot has been used to launch new seasons of hugely hyped reality competitions, like NBC's The Voice after Super Bowl XLVI and FOX's The Masked Singer after last year's Super Bowl LIV.

    The Double Dips

    What to do when you want to spotlight a half-hour sitcom in your one-hour post Super Bowl slot? On several occasions two shows have shared the slot. NBC's ill-fated The Good Life premiered in 1994 was paired with the already-established The John Larroquette Show, while FOX launched Family Guy and American Dad by pairing each up with an episode of The Simpsons. Most recently, FOX aired a block of New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine in 2014.

    The Part Ones

    At some point the networks realized that they could successfully bait the hook by airing part one of a two-part episode after the Super Bowl, in the hopes that the audience would then follow the show to its regularly scheduled night to get satisfaction. The Practice pulled this off in 2000, following the thrilling last-second conclusion of the Rams-Titans game in Super Bowl XXXIV. ABC did it again, in even more spectacular fashion, with the Grey's Anatomy two-parter with guest stars Kyle Chandler and Christina Ricci (you know, the one where Meredith had to keep her hand on a bomb inside a patient) after Super Bowl XL. NBC aired the first half of a two-part episode of The Blacklist after Super Bowl XLIX. This should not be confused with the practice of sitcoms airing two-part, hour-long episodes after the Super Bowl, as happened with Friends in 1996, Malcolm in the Middle in 2002 and The Office in 2009.

    The Very Special Guest Stars

    Unsurprisingly, many shows have opted for big, flashy guest stars in their Super Bowl outings. Friends aired "The One After the Super Bowl," following Super Bowl XXX, which boasted guest stars Jean-Claude Van Damme, Brooke Shields, Chris Isaak, and Julia Roberts saying the words "Suzy Underpants." New Girl's post-Super Bowl XLVIII episode famously featured Prince. And The Late Show with Stephen Colbert followed up Super Bowl 50 with guests Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Will Ferrell, Megyn Kelly, Keegan-Michael Key, and Jordan Peele.

    The Game Changers

    The highest echelon in our post-Super Bowl lead-out pantheon, however, is reserved for the shows that took their biggest swings when the spotlight on them was the brightest. FOX's first-ever Super Bowl in 1997 was followed by the X-Files episode "Leonard Betts," at the end of which Agent Scully makes the shocking discovery that she has cancer. The post-Super Bowl XXXVIII episode of Alias was infamously low-rated because it began so late in the night, but the viewers who did tune in saw the J.J. Abrams show completely turn its narrative on its ear with "Phase One," the episode where Sydney Bristow and the CIA take down the villainous SD-6. Most recently, NBC's This Is Us grabbed headlines for airing the much-hyped emotional devastation of a major character death, in a fire that started — fittingly enough — on Super Bowl Sunday.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Super Bowl LV, 60 Minutes, Alias, All in the Family, American Dad!, The Blacklist, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Criminal Minds, Elementary, The Equalizer (2021 series), Family Guy, Friends, Glee, Grey's Anatomy, House, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Malcolm in the Middle, The Masked Singer, New Girl, The Office (US), The Practice, The Simpsons, Survivor, This Is Us, Undercover Boss, The Voice, The X-Files