Blame it on Mr. T. In January of 1983, NBC aired an episode of its new series The A-Team after the Super Bowl. Prior to this, networks had stuck to their traditional Sunday programming (60 Minutes; Trapper John, M.D.) following the endless postgame coverage. But NBC realized the Super Bowl would provide a huge lead-in of intoxicated males who might really go for a mindless show with lots of explosions in it.
The A-Team became a huge hit, and ever since then, networks have been trying to figure out how to exploit the high-profile time period. This year, Fox is launching its new animated series Family Guy, followed by a special episode of The Simpsons guest-starring network chieftain Rupert Murdoch. Yet history shows that an after-Bowl bow doesn’t always guarantee a ratings touchdown once the show moves to its regular slot.
Borrowing The A-Team‘s battle plan, CBS detonated another action hour, Airwolf, after the 1984 game. The helicopter drama with Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine hovered for two and a half seasons before landing on the USA Network. But that’s a smash compared with the next three post-Bowl bombs: ABC’s husband-and-wife cop show MacGruder and Loud, NBC’s Police Academy clone The Last Precinct, and CBS’ newsroom drama Hard Copy (costarring ID4 producer Dean Devlin!), none of which lasted a full season. In 1988, just when it looked like networks would give up on the idea, ABC gambled with a little dramedy called The Wonder Years. Laced with baby-boomer nostalgia, it apparently appealed to football fans’ sensitive sides — you know how weepy drunk guys can get — and kicked off an Emmy-winning six-year run.
NBC took a different approach the next season by airing the first part of the TV movie Brotherhood of the Rose, a Peter Strauss spy thriller that proved too confusing for such an impaired audience. CBS went back to A-Team basics with 1990’s Grand Slam, starring John Schneider and Paul Rodriguez as bounty hunters, but the action comedy crashed after seven weeks. Despite the presence of Randy Quaid and Jonathan Winters, ABC’s 1991 sitcom Davis Rules didn’t, even when it jumped to CBS a year later and added future Saving Private Ryan grunt Giovanni Ribisi to its roster.
In 1992, CBS scored with presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s confession (”I have [caused] pain in my marriage…”) to Steve Kroft on a special 60 Minutes. The next year, NBC unveiled its acclaimed Homicide: Life on the Street, unaware that the morally complex cop show was far too sophisticated for your average gridiron junkie.
The fast failure of NBC’s 1994 farce The Good Life (featuring unknown comic Drew Carey) and ABC’s 1995 James Brolin adventure Extreme persuaded NBC it was time to try something else. Instead of offering a new series, in ’96 the net ordered an hour-long Friends. Sadly, this was easily the show’s worst episode ever, jammed with pointless celebrity cameos (Julia Roberts, Jean-Claude Van Damme). The next year, Fox aired a special episode of The X-Files. NBC tried again in ’98 with a supermodel-infested 3rd Rock From the Sun, but the stunt failed to halt that sitcom’s ratings free fall.
Ignoring this spotty record, Fox has tapped Family Guy for this season’s post-Bowl slot — and it just might work. Guy is what you’d get if you put Hank Hill, Homer Simpson, and Cartman in a blender. It bursts with crude humor, boasts strong male appeal, and best of all, it’s a cartoon — just like The A-Team.