Back in the days when it was one of the biggest hits on television, the big question was always why nothing ever worked after Lost. ABC tried everything after the show, including science-fiction dramas (Invasion), serialized shows (The Nine), and even a show from one of the same creators (Alias), but nothing seemed to work to keep the audience around. The most popular theory was this: The fans of the show were all rushing to the Internet to discuss their theories about what was going on, and they didn't have time to get invested in a show after. That was their message board time!
Now that it's a little over seven years since the debut of Lost, ABC has yet another hit it can't seem to follow with anything, no matter what it tries there. But if people are rushing off to the Internet to theorize about this show, well… we saw someone live-Tweeting it tonight, so maybe? But it hardly seems likely that Modern Family fans abandon the set en masse to go do something else after the show is over. Modern Family is unquestionably one of the biggest shows of the day. It's in the top 10 for 18-49-year-olds. It's in the top 15 for total viewers. And on premiere week, thanks to DVR numbers released this week, it was the number one show on television among 18-49-year-olds once DVR numbers were factored in, growing 39 percent from an already high number. The show, which many in the critical community saw as a tough sell back in 2009, has grown from a strong performer to a solid hit to a giant hit, and its season-to-season numbers continue to grow. In short, it's the kind of show every network wants to have.
From a network's perspective, having a comedy hit is like money in the bank, because you can usually turn it into two comedy hits, even if one of those two is merely a timeslot hit (a hit that coasts off the numbers of the preceding program). Think of the many comedies over the years that have grown after bigger comedies to become icons of their own: M*A*S*H following All In The Family. Night Court following Cheers. King Of The Hill following The Simpsons. All are legendary shows; all initially were stuck after shows that were seen as a way to protect a promising younger show. And even if that doesn't work, you can usually count on a certain portion of the audience to ride out the hour with whatever follows the big hit, as so many shows scheduled after Seinfeld can attest. (Tellingly, few of those shows succeeded when moved away from the Seinfeld cushion.) And it's not as if the other two-thirds of ABC's night don't work well. Solid performer The Middle heads into modest hit Suburgatory, which actually builds on the show before it, before Modern Family's numbers explode. All that's needed is the final piece of the puzzle.
But ABC can't get anyone to stick around after Modern Family. The show originally programmed there was Cougar Town, which was in that timeslot for Modern Family's first season-and-a-half. (It actually outdrew Modern Family's pilot in 18-49-year-old viewers in its first week on the air, then hung with the show fairly well, roughly until the show's producers dropped the "older woman tries to sleep with younger men" idea within the show. In short, when Cougar Town ceased to be about cougars—the point almost universally acknowledged as the point when it started to get good—the audience disappeared. Think about that for a while.) But around the middle of its second season, it became obvious that while Cougar Town had a fairly large, quite dedicated cult, it was never going to be any bigger than that. The drop-offs from Modern Family got too big for the network to ignore, and it was pulled at midseason in favor of Mr. Sunshine (yay). Mr. Sunshine performed just as miserably, and Cougar Town fared no better when it returned.
Last spring, however, the debut of Happy Endings, the only one to air directly after Modern Family, didn't do spectacularly, but there were intriguing hints (particularly when you drilled down into the numbers) that it was holding on to a good number of Modern Family's youngest viewers. This might be a base the network could build on, which is why the comedy was unexpectedly renewed and put on after Modern Family. It promptly… started doing about what Cougar Town was doing last fall, no more. The show's numbers (it pulled a 2.8 in the demo and 6.70 million viewers last week, compared to Modern Family's 5.7 and 13.24 million) aren't bad, particularly for a comedy that skews young, but they suffer incredibly when compared to the show that precedes them. And there's no guarantee that Happy Endings would do all that well on its own somewhere else. (For comparison, Cougar Town grabbed 7.10 million viewers in the same week last year, although it held on to more of Modern Family's audience, since the latter wasn't a monster hit yet.)
And the many excuses offered for Cougar Town's lack of success—the title, the original premise, the show's very odd sense of humor—don't terribly apply to Happy Endings, which is a good, very funny show but also about as mainstream as you can get. Indeed, it's basically a single-camera Friends with more pop culture references. (And before you say Friends never had to follow a family sitcom, consider that its original lead-in was Mad About You.) Plus, it's clear from the edgier Suburgatory following the more traditional The Middle that the ABC audience is willing to go with slight tonal shifts, so long as the shows themselves are mostly sunny. But three shows have now been tried after Modern Family. And all three of those shows have had immense trouble even hanging on to enough of the preceding show's audience to justify staying there. What is it about Modern Family that makes its audience so uniquely susceptible to turning off the TV after the show's over? And what will it take to get them to stay around?
It's likely that ABC—which just saw 13.19 million people tune in for the debut of its new Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing, making it the second highest-rated sitcom debut in viewers this season—won't be too concerned with this question, having one of the three biggest comedies on TV and a wealth of other solid to great performers on its hands. In that case, it can afford to keep cult hits with critical love like Cougar Town and Happy Endings alive. But it's still a puzzling question. Who are these people who watch 90 minutes of comedy and then just stop, no matter what's on after?
As mentioned, the first DVR numbers of the year are out, and they show just why struggling networks like NBC and The CW stick with struggling shows like Supernatural and Community. Those were two of the shows to post the biggest gains in the 18-49-year-old audience when DVR usage within seven days of initial broadcast was counted. Supernatural, in fact, performed the best of any network TV show, going an 0.8 to a 1.3 and adding 63 percent of viewership. Community didn't perform as well, but it did jump 41 percent from a 1.7 to a 2.4, a bigger jump than any other NBC Thursday comedy and good enough for 13th place overall. (The Office jumped 38 percent, while neither Parks And Recreation nor Whitney made the top 25. Also, this is the only time Community's name will appear in a top 25 list this season.) NBC is probably even more ecstatic about the performance of Up All Night, which leaped from a 2.4 to a 3.5 for 46 percent growth. The lesson: People love them some babies. (Read more DVR, live-plus-7 numbers by going to TV By The Numbers here.)
Next week on the ratings roundup: Just what does it take to get canceled by HBO?