How Do Top TV Shows Stay on Top?

Leah Burrows | Apr 10, 2013

Greys Anatomy Hit TV Show

Grey’s Anatomy lost me with the ghost sex in season five, so I was surprised to discover that the show is about to be renewed for a tenth season. It’s still among primetime’s top shows.

People kept watching after ghost sex? Why?

How do TV’s top shows retain viewers through eight, nine, and even 10 seasons? I watched some of the highest rated and longest running TV shows to find answers, and discovered some very simple (and not so simple) tricks for keeping regular viewers and bringing back those who (like me) flew the coop.

1. Stick to the Formula

I recently watched Grey’s Anatomy for the first time in three years. I was greeted with the familiar aerial shots of Seattle and Meredith Grey’s raspy voice-over. It was like I never left. Sure, there were new characters (Smash!), but the formula was the same: Establish who is sleeping with whom. Introduce trauma or medical mystery or both. Reveal who wants to sleep with whom but isn’t. Solve medical mystery/fix trauma with the appropriate amount of death and survival. Throw in a lingering glance, a clandestine hook-up in a medical supply closet, and a collegial rivalry. Simmer for 42 minutes and voilà! You’ve got yourself a Grey’s Anatomy episode.

The trick with the formula is to avoid becoming formulaic. It works best with medical dramas and cop procedurals, because each week’s central mystery provides enough variation to keep viewers interested. Take CBS’s NCIS, the grandfather of high-rated, long-running TV shows. It’s in its tenth season, and when it slips in the ratings, it drops to number two. Why? A winning formula of murder, witty banter, will they/won’t they sex appeal, and a dash of Mark Harmon’s steely gaze. No wonder moms love it.

2. It’s the Characters, Stupid

You can’t be a successful, long-running TV series without good characters. (Sorry, Revolution, but I give you about three seasons). Look at CBS’s How I Met Your Mother. Yes, there’s a central mystery, but we keep watching because of Robin, Barney, Ted, Marshall, and Lily. After eight seasons, we still care about them.

The show has managed to avoid a fate that sometimes befalls long-running sitcoms: The characters still feel like characters, not caricatures. Remember how cartoonish J.D. became by the end of Scrubs?

How I Met Your Mother’s characters and their relationships are so well defined that the show hasn’t had to introduce new regulars—an often-Herculean task. Some long-running shows have done it seamlessly: Mayim Bialik’s Amy Farrah Fowler and Melissa Rauch’s Bernadette breathed new life into the sometimes lagging Big Bang Theory. Sometimes, though, the transition is a little more painful—as in post-Steve Carell The Office and the criminal under-use of Catherine Tate.

3. Pander

Did you know that CW’s Supernatural is in its eighth season and is set to return for at least one more? I didn’t. I also don’t know a lot of people who watch Supernatural. The writers of Supernatural, however, know exactly who watches the show: men aged 18 to 49—and the writers cater the show to them. That means stoic male leads, muscle cars, and sexy demonic women. It also means renewal after renewal after renewal.

So, there you go: the secrets of a long-lasting TV show. Sure, you need talented actors and writers, studio backing, funding and the sixth sense to hit the zeitgeist at the exact right moment, but how hard can that be?

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