Plenty of stuff does not work on television. Ratings on broadcast and cable are free-falling, and the streaming folks don’t say boo about how many are watching their programs. Weakly-watched shows don’t get canceled a few weeks after premiering the way they used to, but plenty instead drift into greater obscurity week after week.
Yet amidst all the sinking ratings, some stuff flies. For every big batch of shows that doesn’t make an impact with viewers, one breaks out.
As the year approaches its midpoint, here are five shows that did indeed bust out in the first half of 2019, and made their mark in popular culture. They include a broadcast rookie, a cable sophomore, a streaming show and a couple of other broadcast series that display no signs of slowing, despite dating back to the era before the streaming standouts launched.
We look at how, and why, these shows popped, and what we might learn from their success.
‘The Masked Singer’: Unlike Anything Else on TV
The Masked Singer opened with a bang on Fox in early January, posting a noisy 4.2 in viewers 18-49 in Nielsen’s live-plus-seven ratings, and proclaiming that the zany competition series was to be reckoned with. Based on a South Korean format, the show has celebs in elaborate costumes facing off in a singing competition. Nick Cannon hosts, and the judging panel is comprised of Ken Jeong, Jenny McCarthy, Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke. One lesser singer is voted out at the end of the episode, and reveals their identity as the audience chants “Take it off!”
High art? Hardly. Did audiences gobble it up? Wholeheartedly.
“The Masked Singer was so visually arresting with those ridiculous costumes, and the guessing game concept — who is that singing? — was intriguing enough that it managed to cut through the clutter and get viewers’ attention,” said Rob Owen, TV critic at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The contestants, including Tommy Chong, Terry Bradshaw, Tori Spelling, Ricki Lake, Joey Fatone and Margaret Cho, weren’t exactly A-listers. As the finale wound down, rapper T-Pain beat out Gladys Knight and Donny Osmond for the crown.
Fully 14.2 million watched.
There are oodles of singing competitions, but The Masked Singer is different, thanks to the hidden identities and the costumes. “It was crazy from the beginning,” Roger Catlin, veteran TV critic, said. “Just the insanity of it … It was so different from anything else.”
The Masked Singer played perfectly into social media, with viewers sharing who they thought it might be under the mask.
Ken Jeong said The Masked Singer would tug at viewers’ heartstrings. “Everyone wants an emotional journey when they watch a show,” he said before the premiere. “This show definitely provides that.”
Masked Singer averaged a 3.8 rating (live-plus-seven) and 11.6 million total viewers for its rookie season (15.7 million multiplatform viewers). Time will tell if its novelty wears off, but Fox is all in on The Masked Singer. Its upfront presentation had Joe Namath singing in a deer mask. Season two starts in September, and season three leads out of the Super Bowl.
‘Russian Doll’: A Quirky Show’s Fatal Attraction
Russian Doll launched on Netflix a day before Groundhog Day, without a whole lot of buzz. But the comedy-drama, whose executive producers include Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland and Natasha Lyonne, promptly scooped up raves by the truckload.
Starring Lyonne as Nadia, a woman who dies at her birthday party and keeps coming back to life at the party, in the bathroom, moments before her demise, Russian Doll garnered a million comparisons to the 1993 Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, but took the concept much further than the movie did. All the while, it deftly danced between tragic and funny, delivering both slapstick and hints of sci-fi.
“Once you get into it, it talks about different things,” Myles McNutt, Old Dominion University assistant professor of communication, said. “It doesn’t feel like a pure homage.”
Critics praised Lyonne and the show.
“Much of the fun of the series is in its surprises,” wrote Rolling Stone critic Alan Sepinwall, “not just the many ways in which Nadia winds up dying, but the things she’s forced to confront about herself and all the friends and loved ones she’s tried to hold at arm’s length through three-and-a-half very messy decades on this planet.”
Critics saluted its creativity. Rotten Tomatoes’ critical Tomatometer has Russian Doll at an impressive 96%.
“Like its peers, Russian Doll resolves on the necessity of human connection, a familiar homily, but it’s too inventive and irascible to feel pat,” wrote James Poniewozik of The New York Times. “This is a show with a big heart, but a nicotine-stained heart that’s been dropped in the gutter and kicked around a few times.
“Russian Doll is lean and snappily paced,” he continued. “It even managed the rare feat, in the era of streaming-TV bloat, of making me wish for a bit more.”
McNutt noted the series’ philosophical leanings. “It felt very distinct and very special the more you dug in,” he said.
‘Grey’s Anatomy’: ‘Old Gray Lady’ Still Has Spring in Her Step
Reaching a 15th season itself is an accomplishment, but doing real ratings in season 15 is a rare occurrence.
Grey’s Anatomy got it done.
The hospital drama averaged just shy of 10 million total viewers this season, and did well in the key demos as well. ABC is happy to note that Grey’s finished the season behind This Is Us, and This Is Us alone, among dramas in adults 18-34 and 18-49, and the three women’s demographics (18-34, 18-49, 25-54) this season.
McNutt noted the peculiar feeling of seeing Grey’s as “the old gray lady” of ABC’s Shondaland-heavy TGIT slate years ago, and viewing it as the Thursday anchor eons later. “It seems to have revitalized itself, and it still feels like a vital part of the ABC lineup,” McNutt added.
Netflix has turned on a new generation to the show. A full 14 seasons are available for streaming (season 15 arrives June 15), starting with the “A Hard Day’s Night” pilot from 2005. (Meredith finds out Derek is her new boss in that episode.) Millennials like the idea of having a large stash of seasons to digest. “Volume matters,” McNutt said. “It provides you with something you can watch for weeks, and months.”
Creator Shonda Rhimes moved on to Netflix two years ago, but still executive produces Grey’s. Krista Vernoff runs the show next season, and Ellen Pompeo once again suits up as Dr. Meredith Grey.
ABC has committed to season 17, too. At the Disney upfront show in May, Karey Burke, ABC Entertainment president, teased weekly crossovers between Grey’s and spinoff Station 19.
‘Meet the Press’: Extending Brand Beyond Politics
A monumental presidential election goes down in less than a year and a half, and there is no more essential TV figure breaking down politics than NBC News political director Chuck Todd. Meet the Press, which he moderates, is on fire, winning 66 consecutive Sunday broadcasts in viewers 25-54 and averaging 870,000 in that demo, along with 3.48 million total viewers season to date. (CBS’s Face the Nation is next at 718,000 and 3.25 million.)
Todd extends the brand with MTP Daily on MSNBC, airing 5 p.m. weekdays, and the Chuck ToddCast, a podcast which debuted in April.
News analyst Andrew Tyndall credited Todd with getting Meet the Press back to its lofty perch of the Tim Russert era. “He has a feel for what the sweet spot is for that program,” Tyndall said.
A testament to Todd’s straightforward focus is that he can get key Republicans to come on Meet the Press. This year, that includes President Donald Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and Sen. Ted Cruz. The thinking among them is, if they can hold their own against Todd, they can handle any public-affairs forum out there.
“Ambitious politicians want to go on,” Tyndall said.
Before joining NBC News, Todd was editor in chief at the National Journal’s Washington daily The Hotline. Rival anchors turned to politics after covering general news. Todd turned to TV after a long stint being neck deep in politics.
It hasn’t all been politics. On Dec. 30, Todd did a well-received hourlong climate change special on Meet the Press.
So robust is the brand that the third annual Meet the Press Film Festival goes down in Washington Oct. 6-7. It will feature issues-based documentary shorts and live discussions.
Extending Meet the Press to a daily cable show is a no brainer, but a branded film fest is unique. “Making a film festival out of a Sunday-morning show — that’s really clever,” said Tyndall.
‘Killing Eve’: Stellar Sophomore
Killing Eve had enormous buzz coming out of its rookie season on BBC America, and has been able to parlay that into greater ratings and considerable critical acclaim in season two, a rare occurrence in the TV world.
In live-plus-three ratings, season two averaged 1.7 million viewers per episode, up a stunning 88% from season one. In adults 25-54, it averaged 675,000, an 80% gain.
Linda Ong, chief culture officer at Civic Entertainment Group, said Killing Eve hit popular culture at precisely the right time. “There’s so much that’s culturally relevant about the show,” she said.
Spy thrillers are always centered on male characters, but Eve has two compelling females in the lead. MI6 agent Eve Polastri is portrayed by a multicultural actress in Sandra Oh, who won a Golden Globe for best actress in a drama, and co-hosted the event to boot. The story line dances around the globe with a colorful cast of international characters. “It plays on an amazing global stage,” Ong said.
Helping goose the Nielsens was a decision by AMC Networks to air season two on both BBC America and AMC. “We believe we’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential viewers and we want to expose this brilliant series to the largest audience we can,” Sarah Barnett, president, entertainment networks for AMC Networks, said at the time.
Season two began April 7. A day later, AMC Networks announced it had ordered a third season. “We can sleep soundly knowing these characters are safe in [incoming writer/executive producer] Suzanne Heathcote’s hilariously murderous hands,” executive producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge said. Yes, the same Phoebe Waller-Bridge who created and starred in Amazon Prime Video hit Fleabag.
Ong called Killing Eve “flawlessly executed” and “stylish,” and possessing loads of “global appeal.”