Commentary

'This is Us,' 'The Good Doctor': Anatomy Of Broadcast Hits

Only three prime-time series currently rank in the top 10 among total viewers and adults 18-49: this season’s “The Big Bang Theory” spinoff, “Young Sheldon,” along with the new medical drama “The Good Doctor” and the family saga “This is Us,” now in its second season.

Since “Young Sheldon” spun off from the highest rated entertainment series on broadcast and follows it on CBS’s schedule, its success was virtually assured.  

I wanted to analyze the two dramas, both of which became instant hits on their own merits. NBC’s “This is Us” had a fair amount of pre-season buzz before its successful debut last year, while ABC’s “The Good Doctor” had virtually none (although I was quoted in the press before the season began, saying it was the best medical drama pilot I had ever seen).

What makes these shows special? Do they have anything in common that contributed to their clicking with viewers right off the bat?  

Well, first of all, they both understand they are broadcast, not cable series.  Whenever I hear network strategists say they are going to follow the cable model, I think of edgier but lower-rated programming.  These shows know what they are, and appeal to a broader audience, which is reflected by casting and storylines.  

Ironically, the two cable networks that have had the most original scripted series ratings success primarily because they had more broadcast-like shows, USA and TNT, are both trying to move away from broad-appeal series to edgier, younger-skewing fare (but that’s a subject for another column).  

What else do “This is Us” and “The Good Doctor” have in common?  At their core is a beating heart.  No anti-heroes here, no action scenes, elite military teams or task forces — just flawed people surrounded by other flawed people trying to make their way in a world that seems filled with obstacles.  

Both series also effectively use flashbacks to advance the plot and explain the characters’ backstories.  And in today’s uncertain and polarizing times, the fact that both dramas are ultimately uplifting and inspiring strongly contributes to their popularity.  

What lessons can we learn from their success?  Looking back through the history of television, we can find many broadcast hits that seemingly came out of nowhere.  Several of them led to multiple failed clones that tried unsuccessfully to catch that lightning in a bottle.  

So these shows’ success does not mean that viewers are looking for more family dramas (although that may be true).  It does not mean that viewers want another medical drama.  It does not mean that flashbacks are now a device that should be used in every drama.  

No, the successes of “This is Us” and “The Good Doctor” tell us the same thing    most hits do: Viewers are looking for well-written, innovative shows that tell good stories, with great casts who gel. They want shows that aren’t just clones of something they’ve seen before (unless, of course, it’s another CBS procedural).

As is usually the case, most hits come as a surprise.  The next major success is right around the corner — but we won’t know it until after it debuts.  But I’ll again let you know which new shows are the best and worst of the batch.

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