The success of three-hankie drama This Is Us is transforming a significant chunk of the broadcast TV schedule this fall, as everyone tries to copy and cash in on criers that wring every milligram of emotion out of viewers.
Among the emotion-filled new dramas on the fall schedule are Manifest, New Amsterdam, and A Million Little Things. As the Daily Beast put it in noting the profusion of pain on display, all three new dramas try (to varying levels of success) to copy the This Is Us playbook, which comes “down to one pandering mission statement: Make them cry.”
At play here is a chance for ratings primacy: This Is Us quickly shot to the top of the ratings when it debuted two years ago, detailing the tragedies, trials and tribulations of the sprawling and diverse Pearson clan.
Since then, it’s become the top returning drama on broadcast TV in the prized 18-to-49 demographic. And its success (alongside The Voice, Chicago Fire and its two spinoffs) made NBC the top-rated network after years of mediocrity. The first episode this season for This is Us continued the ratings roll, a rare audience-grabbing drama from one of the Big Four at a time when all the buzz is for HBO, Showtime, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.
This is Us not only draws tons of tune-in viewers – veritable gold for the networks when it comes to ad sales – it also far outperforms everything else on the NBC schedule when it comes to delayed viewing. The Season 3 opener grabbed a 5.4 rating after seven days, double NBC’s No. 2, the revived Will & Grace, which drew a 2.8.
“This Is Us works because of how purposeful(ly) and methodically it uses story to manipulate emotion, because of the audience’s desire to be coerced into that emotion, and, most importantly, because of how fully realized the characters are, so that each twist and tragic moment rings of a familiar truth,” Daily Beast critic Kevin Fallon wrote.
Smartly deployed emotion is powerful stuff, capable of drawing viewers in and keeping them talking and coming back for more, said Jared Feldman, CEO and founder of Canvs, which uses artificial-intelligence tools to analyze those responses in millions of posts and comments about TV shows.
“Emotional connections are critical to a show’s success,” said Feldman, whose company advises some of the most data-driven TV groups out there, including Comcast and its NBCUniversal unit, Fox, Turner and Netflix.
“We found that Season Two of This is Us received 3.6 times more ‘cried’ reactions than any other broadcast TV dramas during the same time period,” Feldman said. “By tapping into emotions such as sadness, creators are building deeper relationships with audiences that translate into increased viewership.”
It’s not just ‘loved’ or “cried” that gets audiences going, either.
“Through studies like this one, Canvs has learned that certain emotions can elicit increased viewership,” Feldman said. “In TV dramas, for every 1 percent increase in emotional reactions conveying “hate,” there is a 0.7 percent increase in viewership. Tapping into emotions such as “hate,” “sadness,” and “beautiful” is proven to drive results for networks and creators.”
It’s worth noting that the This is Us audience devotion didn’t automatically carry over when creator Dan Fogelman wrote and directed his latest movie, Life Itself. Since its Sept. 21 release, Life Itself has been pretty lifeless, wringing only $3.7 million in box office from audiences after two weeks of release, despite debuting on more than 2,600 screens. Tapping emotion can be hard, even for skilled creators.
But even the Daily Beast, in giving mediocre reviews to the knockoffs of This Is Us, acknowledged those shows are likely to “perform fairly well with audiences. This fall, the crying will happen. The question is how much of it will have been earned.”
Indeed, initial ratings showed that Manifest was “far and away the top new show to premier so far,” as the Hollywood Reporter put it. The show about an airplane full of people who disappear for five years was the top newcomer among Week 1 debuts for both same-day and C+3 (combined day-of and next three days) ratings, according to Nielsen.
Manifest’s numbers went from 2.2 on the first day to 3.6 on C+3, beating even This is Us for biggest gain. New Amsterdam had the second-highest ratings, and the second-largest gain, among new shows. ABC’s A Million Little Things was on the lower end of the week’s shows, but gained .7 of a rating point over three days to end up middle of the pack at 1.8.
So earned is as earned does. Writers and showrunners who know how to wring emotion out of their story lines are likely to be regularly rewarded with loyal audiences who keep coming back for more.