Get the Lead Out — A History of Series Debuts After the Super Bowl

I still have pretty vivid memories of watching television on the evening of Super Bowl XXII. Not just because it was the day that the hated Denver Broncos got pummeled by the Redskins, but it was also the premiere of The Wonder Years on ABC. It instantly became one of my favorite shows, and I watched it faithfully for most if its entire run. As it turns out, The Wonder Years was also one of the more successful shows to launch right after the Super Bowl.

Let’s take a look at the history of TV series to debut after the big game and see how many we can remember.

1979: Brothers and Sisters (NBC), Super Bowl XIII

Brothers and Sisters (NBC) -- 1979It wasn’t until the thirteenth Super Bowl that a network struck on the idea of capitalizing on a huge built-in audience to roll out a new series. You can’t blame them if they had never done so again, because Brothers and Sisters was hardly a ratings bonanza.

Instead, it was a short-lived Animal House ripoff — one of three frat house comedies on network TV in 1979 — featuring three Crandall College frat brothers who liked to crack wise and chase sorority sisters. The show, co-starring screen legend Jack Lemmon’s son Chris, ran for 13 episodes and was off the air by April. ABC’s Delta House lasted only a few weeks longer.

1983: The A-Team (NBC), Super Bowl XVII

Not surprisingly, it was four years before a network dared air a new show after the Super Bowl again. This time, however, NBC hit it big with The A-Team. Although the two-part pilot had already aired before Super Bowl XVII, the series’ first regular episode (“Children of Jamestown”) aired after a thrilling Dolphins/Redskins championship game. The A-Team, which launched Mr. T’s career and was a Top 10 show for its first three seasons, was finally canceled in November 1986 and aired its last episode in March 1987.

1984: Airwolf (CBS), Super Bowl XVIII

It was CBS’s turn to debut a new series after the Super Bowl, and so Airwolf‘s two-hour pilot episode aired after Super Bowl XVIII (my beloved Raiders’ last title to date). The show starred Jan-Michael Vincent, Ernest Borgnine, Alex Cord, and a really bitchin’ helicopter. What else do you need, really?

But after just three seasons CBS grounded Airwolf. In 1987 the still-obscure USA Network bought the rights to the series and aired a fourth and final season with an entirely new cast.

1985: MacGruder and Loud (ABC), Super Bowl XIX

So much for the winning streak. While not a failure on the level of Brothers and Sisters, Aaron Spelling’s crime drama about married police officers quickly faltered after a strong post-Super Bowl debut. Spelling and ABC imagined the show as an answer to Cagney and Lacey but apparently the question really was, “What cop show is the total opposite of Cagney and Lacey in the ratings?”

ABC took MacGruder and Loud‘s badges after three months and twelve episodes.

1986: The Last Precinct (NBC), Super Bowl XX

The problem with airing a new comedy right after Super Bowl XX was that once you’ve seen William “The Refrigerator” Perry run for a touchdown against the hapless Patriots the laughter bar has already been set pretty high. And so it was that Stephen J. Cannell’s one and only foray into the world of sitcoms, The Last Precinct, was a brief one. The premise was that Adam West was Capt. Rick Wright, who ran a precinct of characters not funny enough to make it into the Police Academy movies. And they had Bobcat Goldthwait. That’s about all you need to know.

The Last Precinct closed its doors in May 1986, after just eight episodes.

1987: Hard Copy (CBS), Super Bowl XXI

No, it’s not that awful tabloid show from the ’90s, although I thought it was too. This Hard Copy is an awful and forgotten drama about a hard-boiled reporter who don’t brook no nonsense. At least that’s what I can gather from the scant resources about this show on the internet. What I do know was that Hard Copy became the third post-Super Bowl debut flop in a row and lasted less than a season.

1988: The Wonder Years (ABC), Super Bowl XXII

Like I said, The Wonder Years rocked. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so, as the show peaked at #9 during its third season and ran for a total of five. I’ll still never forgive Winnie Cooper for leading Kevin on all that time, as much of a whiny dork as he could be.

1990: Grand Slam (CBS), Super Bowl XXIV

Grand Slam (CBS, 1990) print advertisementI had never even heard of this one until I started putting this list together. It was apparently a comedy about a pair of bounty hunters based out of San Diego. One of them was played by Paul Rodriguez, the other by John Schneider of The Dukes of Hazzard and later Smallville.

The premise was that these two “bounty hunters” competed with each other to capture the same criminals, sometimes even screwing the other one over. Yuk yuk?

Nope, just yuck. Grand Slam debuted at #15 in the ratings, but sank to #68 the very next week and was off the schedule in a matter of weeks.

1991: Davis Rules (ABC), Super Bowl XXV

This one coulda been a contender I suppose. It starred Randy Quaid and Jonathan Winters, which was a good start. But as Casey-Werner sitcoms go it was no Roseanne or The Cosby Show. ABC canceled it after 13 episodes, but it briefly found new life on CBS — which added a fresh-faced Giovanni Ribisi to the cast.

1993: Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC), Super Bowl XXVII

This crime drama takes the prize in terms of longevity and critical acclaim, if not in actual ratings. Homicide: Life on the Street ran on NBC for seven seasons and 122 episodes, plus a TV movie. It won multiple awards and was the launching pad for Andre Braugher’s career.

1994: The Good Life (NBC), Super Bowl XXVIII

Right before breaking out with his own sitcom on ABC, Drew Carey co-starred with John Caponera in this short-lived NBC comedy. It was canned after thirteen episodes, and I can’t think of anything else interesting to say about this one.

1995: Extreme (ABC), Super Bowl XXIX

ABC banked on the star power of James Brolin in this action series about a Rocky Mountain rescue crew led by a guy named Reese Wheeler. They lost, and Extreme went on hiatus right after the debut. Before it left for good it did manage to air seven episodes. Bummer, dude.

1999: Family Guy (Fox), Super Bowl XXXIII

After Extreme fizzled, networks stuck to airing episodes of popular, established shows like Friends and The X-Files after the big game. But Fox took a gamble on a new animated series to air with perennial juggernaut The Simpsons. Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy debuted to an audience of 22 million, a pretty impressive number but the lowest since Extreme in ’95. Fox famously pulled the plug after three difficult seasons, only to bring Family Guy back in 2005. It’s been a fixture on the network’s Sunday night animation block since then.

2005: American Dad! (Fox), Super Bowl XXXIX

What the hell, it worked once for Fox right? Technically, American Dad! debuted after The Simpsons on Super Bowl night, but let’s not split hairs. It was the first new Seth MacFarlane animated series since Family Guy debuted, and although it was very similar in terms of characters it’s not a spinoff. American Dad! is currently on its seventh season and is coming back for an eighth. This despite never rising above #79 in the ratings.

2010: Undercover Boss (CBS), Super Bowl XLIV

The last new series to debut after the Super Bowl (as of 2013) is Undercover Boss, aka Rich White Guys Are People Too. People apparently dig watching powerful company heads mingling with the hoi polloi they emploi (sorry, couldn’t resist), as evidenced by the nearly 39 million viewers who tuned in for the show’s debut. That’s the highest total since the second-season premier of Survivor in 2001, and the most viewers for a new post-Super Bowl series since The Last Precinct in ’86. It was a different time back then, folks.

The fourth season of Undercover Boss is now underway.

The Scorecard

No, I didn’t forget a show. This is the wrapup, where I review and rate how many successes and failures there are in this lot. I define a loss as any show that lasted one season or less; a tie lasts 2-4 seasons, and a win goes for more. I’m moving Undercover Boss to the win column since it seems to be a lock for a fifth season.

Losses (7)Brothers and Sisters, MacGruder and Loud, The Last Precinct, Hard Copy, Grand Slam, The Good Life, Extreme

Ties (2)Airwolf, Davis Rules

Wins (7)The A-Team, The Wonder Years, Homicide: Life on the Street, Family Guy, American Dad!, Undercover Boss

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Chris Holmes Author