This month, CBS is launching a procedural of unusually high quality, featuring both a game and talented cast and a tie to intellectual property that is about as recognizable, among pop-culture fans, as anything that exists. It seems both like a potentially major hit and like the sort of show that deserves a healthy head start to get it there.
That’s not, though, the show that CBS will be launching after the Super Bowl. “Clarice,” starring Rebecca Breeds as the FBI agent made famous in “The Silence of the Lambs,” will debut Feb. 11. In the lead-out spot — the place on the TV calendar with the largest potential opening act, and the one that has helped establish hits including “The X-Files,” “Friends,” and “Grey’s Anatomy” — is the pilot for “The Equalizer.” An adaptation of the 1980s CBS crime show, this series features Queen Latifah, returning to TV after Fox’s “Star” wrapped up in 2019 and falling somewhat short of the level of charisma of which we know she’s capable. It’s as though she is all too aware of the fact that she’s in just another CBS reboot, following “MacGyver,” and “Magnum P.I.,” and…
The Super Bowl lead-out is as big a megaphone for an emerging show as could exist, funneling some tens of millions of viewers directly to a show that is allowed to make its case. That will make “The Equalizer” as much a part of the night’s entertainment as the celebrity-packed ads or the Weeknd performing at halftime; unlike the rest of the night’s happenings, though, it doesn’t quite feel like an event. It’s not that there is, or should be, a tradition of pure quality as the guiding light for networks’ post-Big Game offerings. (Indeed, trying to bring taste to bear on any element of the annual tribute to American excess seems misguided.) But, given that this is a berth with a potential viewership in the tens of millions and thus a huge promotional opportunity, what’s noticeable in networks’ handling of the lead-out in recent years has been the degree to which sensibility is absent, too. “The Equalizer” is an OK crime show, placed in an extremely noticeable position. But maybe airing after the big game isn’t so big at all anymore.
The 1990s and 2000s were boom time for the postgame spot, including, on CBS alone, the 1992 blockbuster interview with Bill and Hillary Clinton on “60 Minutes” in 1992, launches of two high-profile seasons of “Survivor” in 2001 and 2004, and — watched by some 38 million people — the premiere of “Undercover Boss” in 2010. CBS has been less assiduous about using the timeslot to promote scripted fare than have other networks, who historically used the moment to cement the success of “Friends” and “The Office” (NBC, 1996 and 2009); “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC, 2006); and “The X-Files” and “House” (Fox, 1997 and 2008). In their last two Super Bowl cycles, CBS attempted to use its time to revitalize “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” with a post-game show in 2016 and to launch the afterthought reality show “The World’s Best” in 2019.
But as reality fare goes, “The World’s Best” was not “Survivor” or “Undercover Boss” or even “The Masked Singer,” which provided pop and oddity to Super Bowl Sunday last year. Like many post-game shows in recent years, it felt selected somewhat at random. Those shows that have flourished in the spot — many listed in the paragraph above — had a sort of old-school programmer’s thought as to their placement on TV’s biggest night. They were often episodes specially constructed with an eye towards massive spectacle and grabbiness, like the mega-sized, star-packed “Friends” spectacular, still the most-watched of the lead-outs, or launches of shows that felt somehow special and unique, not just attracting viewers catching a cultural wave. This still happens: NBC’s decision to place the big reveal of “This Is Us” character Jack Pearson’s death after the Bowl in 2018 felt momentous, and “The Masked Singer” was at the peak of its novelty in 2020.
But more often, lately, the programming feels rote, plugged in because something must be. The 2017 relaunch of Fox’s “24” — a franchise that had barely had time to cool off — is a good example, as is “The World’s Best,” an unscripted show with a muddled concept and unclear value proposition. Similarly, “The Equalizer” is as good as much of the rest of CBS’ crime-drama slate, but little about it feels urgent. CBS might get fortunate enough to see many people leave their TVs on after the game. But in programming square-down-the-middle fare on their most-watched night of the year, they’re making a statement that those just visiting CBS for the night needn’t check back in soon.
Paradoxically, there’s never been more urgency to standing out over the course of the night. The Super Bowl, in the era that was friendliest to lead-out programming, used to be simpler. The ads, now promoted in and of themselves in the week leading up to the game, have entered a high decadent period; recent halftime shows, including last year’s with Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, are as elaborately staged and attention-consuming as they’ve ever been. (The Weeknd, no stranger to visual grandeur in his performances, is likely to up the ante.) The second-screen experience is a frantic distraction, with organic memes as well as ads pushing you to whip out your phone. And it’s now standard to broadcast a special late-night comedy episode after the local news; Stephen Colbert will broadcast on Sunday this year. The clutter in the way of a clear hand-off between the game and the lead-out famously hit a peak when an episode of ABC’s “Alias” intended as a series refresh was postponed by a post-game concert in 2003. But the game has grown only noisier and more crowded since. It can be easy to forget that there is football on Super Bowl Sunday — let alone a workmanlike, totally OK cop show.
All of this accounts for why the “totally OK” has not been able to hit the heights one might expect in recent years: some 17.58 million watched the “24: Legacy” pilot, and 22.21 million stayed tuned for “The World’s Best.” (Comparisons to “Friends” may be unfair, but more than 38 million people watched “Undercover Boss,” carefully chosen at what was then the height of resentment of the establishment.) Which brings us back to “Clarice.” Presumably the show’s upcoming launch will be promoted within the game. But in an environment in which a network’s entertainment division can be guaranteed a shrinking slice of the pie in competition and has to earn every additional million viewers with creativity and novelty, why wouldn’t CBS deploy the fascinating, beautifully made drama about one of cinema’s most recognizable characters? It may be that the network doesn’t want to potentially burn a surefire hit by placing it in front of a distracted audience, but that would bespeak a lack of trust in the audience that feels unfair and unsound. CBS is a network with a lot of programming intended for its rock-solid core viewership; it’s also the network that made a potential crossover hit. Why not try and make an affirmative statement about the network they are with the best programming they already have? As the Green Bay Packers recently learned, and as networks seem not to have internalized yet, playing it safe is a losing game.