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CBS makes right call on post-Super Bowl play

December 21, 2009 | 11:46 am

CBS's decision to use the post-Super Bowl time slot to premiere its new reality show "Undercover Boss" instead of playing it safe by making a special episode of an established hit such as "The Big Bang Theory" or "How I Met Your Mother" is a Hail Mary pass worth throwing.

Since the Super Bowl averages anywhere from 85 million viewers to 95 million viewers and the lead-out (after the post-game wrap-up is done) can draw as many as 45.4 million viewers (as CBS' "Survivor" did in 2001), lots of attention is paid to what the network that has the Super Bowl does after the game.

UNDERCOVERBOSSYes, it's true that the success rate for new shows launching after the Super Bowl is not anything even Bernie Madoff would invest in. The last time a network premiered a new show after the big game was Fox with "Family Guy" in 1999, and that did not work. "Family Guy" flopped in its first run on Fox, but found a second life after reruns and DVD sales showed there was an audience for the cartoon. The Super Bowl slot did little for it.

In other words, for every "A-Team" and "Wonder Years" post-Super Bowl victory, there are five "Davis Rules."

But the flip side is that using the time slot to showcase an existing show also does not guarantee any long-term benefits. In January, NBC ran a special episode of "The Office" after the Super Bowl, and it drew about 23 million viewers. This season, "The Office" is averaging less than 9.8 million viewers, a gain of only 500,000 viewers from before the Super Bowl. Not much of a bump there. Two years ago, CBS ran "Criminal Minds," and while that show is a big success for CBS, tying that to its running after the Super Bowl seems a bit of stretch. "Friends" was already a massive hit when NBC ran it after the Super Bowl.

There are also the hassles producers go through to make a Super Bowl-worthy episode. Often it means lining up guest stars and figuring out how to work them into a plot (as "Friends" did successfully with Julia Roberts and less so with Jean-Claude Van Damme in its post-Super Bowl episode). While it is no doubt a huge thrill to the producers to be asked to do a post-Super Bowl show, it is not without its challenges.

"Undercover Boss," a show in which a CEO goes to work with the grunts of his or her company (unbeknown to them), has gotten strong buzz from advertisers already. At least from early clips, it appears to be a more wholesome show than most reality fare these days and could have a chance at attracting a broad audience.

From a financial standpoint, it's true that CBS would be able to get more advertising dollars by airing an established show after the Super Bowl. But if it is able to launch "Undercover Boss," then it has a new franchise, and that is worth far more than short-term gains it would get by using the time slot for one or two of its Monday sitcoms. This one's a no-brainer, and we're sure Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, no stranger to taking big gambles, would agree. 

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Larry O'Donnell, President and COO of Waste Management in CBS's "Undercover Boss." Credit: CBS.