The Secret to Television Success: Why some TV shows are succeeding when others are failing?

With the 2010-2011 television season wrapping up and a large number of shows getting pink slips, it leads us to wonder why some shows are succeeding in the face of great competition on the television landscape.

Just look at the top scripted television series, it is a menagerie.  It is hard to pin-point the one thing that keeps viewers tuning in.  It is a charismatic character, a gripping storyline, the novelty of concept, or simply that it offers “comfort food” to a viewing audience craving a specific kind of TV show?

With such shows as NCIS, NCIS: L.A., THE MENTALIST, GREY’S ANATOMY, and CRIMINAL MINDS frequently being the top five rated scripted shows, the popularity of procedural shows is evident.  The rest of the top 15 ranked shows include: THE GOOD WIFE, CASTLE, MODERN FAMILY, CSI, BLUE BLOODS, THE BIG BANG THEORY, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, HOUSE, BONES, and GLEE.

With 11 of the top 15 scripted television series being procedural-based, there is a clear indication that TV viewers prefer stand-alone stories — e.g., where each episode offers a medical or police mystery to be addressed and resolved within a single episode.  The remaining 4 shows are comedic based shows offering a form of “comfort food” entertainment.

Regardless, these 15 shows have figured out the secret to success.  Yet other shows may offer a similar procedural format or “comfort food” and still not lure in as many viewers.  So why?  What is it that makes these 15 shows special so that they rise above all the others?

As discussed in my prior article “Did TV Critics Kill LONE STAR?” there are three key ingredients that must be present for any show to succeed:  heart, hero and hook.  There must be a clearly defined hero to root for, a story that engages its audience, and it must be entertaining enough to compel viewers to keep tuning in.  Without one of these key ingredients, a show will struggle and languish.

Shows like NCIS, NCIS: L.A., THE MENTALIST, THE GOOD WIFE, CASTLE, BLUE BLOODS, HOUSE, and BONES have a charismatic “hero” to root for — whether it be: Jethro Gibbs, G. Callen and Sam Hanna, Patrick Jane, Alicia Florrick, Richard Castle and Kate Beckett, Frank Reagan, Gregory House, or Temperance Brennan and Seeley Booth.  With such addictive characters, it is no wonder that fans keep tuning in each week.

While not as clearly defined, shows like GREY’S ANATOMY, CRIMINAL MINDS, MODERN FAMILY, CSI, THE BIG BANG THEORY, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and GLEE offer instead of a clear-cut “hero,” ensembles that provide the key addictive quality.

It is easy enough to cast a charismatic actor or actress to lead a television show, what is harder is to embed the crucial “heart” aspect to a show.  The “what makes viewers care” ingredient.  Is the hero seeking revenge or retribution for a personal wrong?  Is there a romantic angle — a tango of love that offers breadcrumbs to follow down a long road of elusive courtship?  Or is there a quest for redemption?  A hero must not only seek to solve mysteries or conquer villainy, a hero must have a personal journey that draws the viewer in and makes them curious how the hero will attain his revenge, star-crossed love, or redemption.

And finally, the “hook” — the twist that ensures that viewers are not only drawn to the hero and his journey, but will also feel the need to take it with him or her.  “Hooks” are even more intangible.  It is not the “who” (the hero), the “what” (the heart) — it is the “why” (the hook).

In shows like NCIS, the hero and heart aspects are easy to spot.  But the hook is intriguingly elusive.  We follow the hero and we are curious how he will attain his personal goal, but what is the twist?  For a lot of shows, it is simple.  They offer a family we want to be a part of.  This is the “comfort food” ingredient. 

As the highest rated scripted show on television for the 4th year running, NCIS has figured it out.  NCIS offers a surrogate family that we all want to be a part of.  Jethro Gibbs’ may be the hero and his heart was broken and scarred by the loss of his wife and daughter, but his journey is not just about revenge and retribution — it is about redemption.  And for him, redemption can only be found in surrounding himself with friends that are close enough to be his new family — Tony, Ziva, Abby, McGee, Ducky and Jimmy are his family — and by extension, for viewers, they are invited to be a part of it as well. 

For a series just finishing its 8th season and embarking on its 9th, NCIS shows no signs of slowing down in popularity.  While its competition, AMERICAN IDOL has lost over 1/3 of its audience in the past 4 years (bringing its weekly average down from 27 million viewers a week to 19 million viewers a week), NCIS has steadily increased its ratings each year — so that it regularly pulls in an average of 20 million viewers each week (in fact, in the past 4 years, it increased its audience by 5 million — a one-third increase).  The fact that NCIS was able to siphon off 1/3 of AMERICAN IDOL’s audience and add it to its own is astounding.  There is, therefore, a lot to be said about how powerful the right combination of heart, hero and hook can be.  It is the magic combination that ensures that viewers are watching.

Once CBS saw how successfully NCIS had captured, retained and was even increasing its audience, it soon greenlit several more television series that offered the same key ingredients:  NCIS: L.A., THE MENTALIST, CRIMINAL MINDS, THE GOOD WIFE, and BLUE BLOODS — and each time the formula worked perfectly.
ABC and FOX have tried to capture some of that magical success, but with their own spin on it.  For ABC, they struck ratings gold with shows like DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, GREY’S ANATOMY, CASTLE and MODERN FAMILY; and for FOX, it has been with HOUSE, BONES and GLEE.  All of these shows offer a combination of ensemble, duo or solo heroes, but what they have in common is the “familial” aspect.  They have served up a surrogate family that American viewers have latched onto.  They have figured out the “comfort food” ingredient and are offering it in heaping doses.

If there is a show on television that is still searching for its audience or seems to be failing to hold its audience, it is perhaps because they are missing one of the key ingredients.  Did they forget to identify the hero?  Is the show lacking a “heart”?  Or is the show failing to provide a “hook” — or better yet, is it the right kind of “hook”?  Offering television viewers something that comforts them — a surrogate family they want to be a part of can be an essential “hook.”

If you examine each show currently “on the bubble” to see if it has these critical elements — you may discover that one or more is missing.  There is a reason that viewers did not stick around after checking out a show, or failed to even turn-in in the first place.  Some of the best shows remained undiscovered simply because viewers never saw the first episode — they were not convinced from the promos and advertisements that there was something they were looking for.  Frequently, advertisements only show the action sequences or comedic bits of a show.  They forget to advertise a clear-cut hero, the hero’s personal stake and surrogate family that will entice to tune-in.

Television is all about commitment.  Viewers will only tune regularly to a show that they want to make a part of their lives.  So a TV show must offer something that they want in their weekly lives.  They want characters to care about.  The more one cares about a character, the more likely a viewer will keep tuning in to see how they are doing.  Has the hero found another critical clue to tracking down a killer?  Has the hero inched a step forward to attaining his true love’s heart?  Has the hero found a reason to pursue his life, other than his daily tasks?  Has the hero found a family that we want to share in?

Television success is elusive, but when broken down into essential elements, it is not hard to see why certain shows succeed while others vanish — they were missing a key ingredient.

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to The TV Addict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower). Tiffany also writes as a columnist for NiceGirlsTV.

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  • CrazyCris

    EXCELLENT analysis! Very insightful and explained like that… it all seems so obvious!

    But it also makes it seem a bit too formulaic, there’s also an indefinable “something” or other that makes some of these click with the audience more than others. Some of these shows you mention I adore, but most I can’t be bothered with because it’s too much of the same thing and some of them aren’t all that intelligent or the characters that original. Some re-tread the same story over and over.

    I wish more people would give some of the more “original” shows a chance, those that take risks and assume that their audiences are intelligent enough to follow the complex threads of an intricate tale and not just the pre-chewed food that are most procedurals.

  • Abby

    I don’t know if it is succeeding or not, but I won’t watch The Borgias after episode 1 because there is no hero to root for.