The Super Bowl Lead-Out

IT’S SUPER BOWL SUNDAY!! Time to stuff your face, drink some beer, and watch the Kansas City Chiefs face off against the Philadelphia Eagles. And when the game is over, and the NFL champions have been crowned, you can stick around and watch Gordon Ramsey in the season premiere of Next Level Chef, this year’s Super Bowl lead-out program.

The history of the Super Bowl lead-out program dates back to before the championship game was even CALLED the Super Bowl. Did you know that Super Bowl I was referred to as the AFL and NFL World Championship Game? Or that it actually aired on two networks? NBC and CBS held the exclusive rights to broadcast AFL and NFL games, respectively, and the game was only referred to as the Super Bowl retroactively (in fact, the moniker wasn’t adopted until 1969). On January 15, 1967, after the Green Bay Packers finished spanking the Chiefs, both networks went with family-friendly fare for the post-game program: CBS aired an episode of Lassie titled “Lassie’s Litter Bit”, and NBC aired something called “Willie and the Yank: The Mosby Raiders” for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. The two networks combined received a 59% share that night, meaning more than half of American television sets were tuned in.

For the first eighteen years of its existence, the Super Bowl aired exclusively on NBC and CBS, and the two networks continued to use the lead-out for G-rated content: GE College Bowl, 60 Minutes, golf tournaments, and more episodes of Lassie. In 1982, the NFL renegotiated its deal with the networks, and ABC got in on the action with Super Bowl XIX. The network used the coveted post-game time slot to air the pilot of MacGruder and Loud, a series that lasted one season. I don’t remember it, nor do I remember The Last Precinct, which aired the following year after NBC’s coverage of Super Bowl XX. In fact, the lead-out slot is littered with the corpses of series that didn’t make it to season two.

In more recent years, the networks have utilized the lead-out slot to air established properties: special episodes of popular series (The Simpsons, House, and The Blacklist, to name a few) or season premieres of highly rated reality shows like Survivor and The Voice. Last year, NBC returned us to the Winter Olympics (fun fact: under the new contract that takes effect in 2024, NBC will air the Super Bowl exclusively in Winter Olympics years, so expect that to be a regular occurrence). These days, the Super Bowl lead-out tends to receive lower ratings, which isn’t all that surprising. With hundreds of cable channels and countless streaming options, more and more people are tuning out as soon as the game is over. Each year, the ratings dwindle a little more, and the networks put less work into making the time slot a special event. That’s why reality competition programming – which is far cheaper to produce than a scripted series – has become a common lead-out; something like Next Level Chef gives Fox a much bigger ratings bang for their buck.

So, in honor of Super Bowl Sunday, here are some notable Super Bowl lead-outs – and a couple of my personal favorites.

  • Friends – “The One After the Super Bowl” (Super Bowl XXX, January 28, 1996)

If you’re wondering, “What’s the highest-rated post-Super Bowl episode of all time?”, wonder no more. It’s Friends‘ imaginatively titled “The One After the Super Bowl”, and it’s not even close. After watching Dallas beat Pittsburgh by ten, 46% of households – almost 53 million people – tuned in for this one-hour episode of the Gen X sitcom. Not only was Friends (then in its second season) a ratings smash, but one of its actors (Matthew Perry) was dating the biggest movie star on the planet, Julia Roberts. Roberts guest starred on this episode, along with Brooke Shields, Chris Isaak, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Fred Willard, and Dan Castellaneta.

Like a lot of Friends episodes, this one hasn’t aged particularly well. Brooke Shields is a scene-stealer, but the stalker storyline, which pokes fun at the character’s obvious mental illness, just feels icky. And Monica and Rachel fighting over JCVD is just *eye rolls*. My favorite storyline is Phoebe singing for the kids at the library; Lisa Kudrow’s chemistry with guest star Isaak is adorable (“Are you gonna kiss me?” “Thinkin’ about it”) and this scene cracks me up every time.

Fun fact: Brooke Shields, who was best known at the time for romantic dramas like The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love, earned rave reviews for “The One After the Super Bowl”. The gig helped Shields land her own series, Suddenly Susan, for which she received two Golden Globe nominations.

  • Alias – “Phase One” (Super Bowl XXXVII, January 26, 2003)

Few shows have pushed the reset button as hard as this spy thriller did on Super Bowl Sunday, 2003, midway through its second season. After a cold open that gives the show an excuse to show off Jennifer Garner’s ridonkulous body (not to mention her badassery), Sydney, Vaughn, and the CIA are finally able to infiltrate SD-6 and shut it down. Sydney and Vaughn share their long-awaited first kiss, and Sydney deals with the fallout of having had to lie to her SD-6 partner Marcus. And in a shocking twist, the episode ends with the murder of Sydney’s BFF Francie – and the installation of Francie’s “double” Allison into Sydney’s life. “Phase One” was the highest-rated episode of Alias; unfortunately, it was also one of the lowest-rated Super Bowl lead-outs ever, and because the episode didn’t begin until after 11 pm EST, it wasn’t in the coveted prime time bracket. It’s too bad, because “Phase One’ could have earned Alias a lot of new fans.

“Phase One” set the stage for one of my favorite fight scenes ever (“I just remembered, Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream”)
  • Homicide: Life on the Street – “Gone for Goode” / Pilot (Super Bowl XXVII, January 31, 1993)

One of the best network procedurals of all time began as the Super Bowl XXVII lead-out program thirty years ago. Academy Award nominee Paul Attanasio created the series, based on David Simon’s book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The cast (all hail Andre Braugher!) is sublime. “Gone for Goode”, though a ratings disappointment for NBC, earned Oscar winner Barry Levinson an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series.

Fun fact #1: Richard Belzer’s Law & Order: SVU character John Munch was created for Homicide. After the series ended, Munch moved from Baltimore to New York City, just in time for the series premiere of SVU.

Fun fact #2: David Simon, then a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, spent a year (1988) with the homicide unit at the Baltimore PD before writing the Edgar Award winning Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The cases he wrote about served as inspiration not only for Homicide: Life on the Street, but for Simon’s later series, The Wire, as well.

  • The A-Team – “Children of Jamestown” (Super Bowl XVII, January 30, 1983)

The A-Team – about a Special Forces unit convicted of a crime they didn’t commit who escape prison and become a team of mercenaries – kicked off with a two-hour pilot episode the week before and aired its first regular episode after Super Bowl XVII. Starring George Peppard, Dirk Benedict, Dwight Schultz, and Mr. T, The A-Team was a formulaic, cartoonishly violent series – and viewers couldn’t get enough. The series spawned a franchise that includes comic books, video games, and a (terrible) 2011 film adaptation.

Fun fact: NBC did not have high expectations for The A-Team, but one person predicted from the beginning that the show would be a hit, and that was star George Peppard.

  • The Wonder Years – Pilot (Super Bowl XXII, January 31, 1988)

After Washington routed Denver 42-10, ABC aired the pilot for its new coming-of-age dramedy, The Wonder Years. Starring Fred Savage as ’60s suburban kid Kevin Arnold, with voiceover narration by the criminally underrated Daniel Stern as a middle-aged Kevin, The Wonder Years was an instant hit. For its abbreviated (six episode) first season, The Wonder Years won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series; the following year, thirteen-year-old Savage became the youngest-ever nominee for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy alongside legends like Ted Danson, Michael J. Fox, John Goodman, and eventual winner Richard Mulligan. Hubby and I recently binged the entire series on Hulu, and I’m pleased to say it holds up pretty well.

Fun fact: The Wonder Years was the inspiration for a 2021 Disney+ series of the same name starring Dulé Hill. That series was renewed for a second season, which will air sometime in 2023.

  • The X-Files – “Leonard Betts” (Super Bowl XXXI, January 26, 1997)

After years on the sidelines, Fox made the most of its first Super Bowl outing with this outstanding episode of its hit sci-fi series, The X-Files. Paul McCrane stars as the titular character, a cancer-eating mutant with the powers of regeneration. It’s also the episode where viewers learned of Scully’s cancer diagnosis (it’s a pretty important plot point). Almost 30 million viewers tuned in for “Leonard Betts”, making it the most-watched episode of the series’ eleven season run.

“I’m sorry, but you’ve got something I need” <shivers>
  • Survivor: The Australian Outback – “Stranded” / Survivor: All-Stars – “They’re Back!”

The inaugural season of Survivor was a runaway ratings success in the summer of 2000, so naturally CBS rushed a second season into production as soon as possible. The season two premiere aired after Super Bowl XXXV, more than 43 million Americans tuned in, and a franchise was born. Three years later, Survivor‘s first all-star season was the lead-out for Super Bowl XXXVIII, and 33 million watched. Twenty-two years later, Survivor is still on the air (season 44 will premiere on March 1), a testament to the franchise’s staying power.

  • 60 Minutes (Super Bowl XXVI, January 26, 1992)

CBS initially planned to air its news magazine series, 48 Hours, after Super Bowl XXVI. But at the last minute, this abbreviated episode of 60 Minutes was added to the schedule to address presidential nominee Bill Clinton’s relationship with Gennifer Flowers. Flowers, who had sold her story to a tabloid, claimed that she and Clinton carried on a long-term affair, a claim Clinton initially denied (spoiler alert: he lied). This interview is best remembered for Hillary Clinton’s statement that “I’m not sittin’ here, some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Wynette took Clinton to task for her remarks, but the two later made up.

  • Criminal Minds – “The Big Game” (Super Bowl XLI, February 4, 2007)

For its time in the post-Super Bowl spotlight, Criminal Minds wrote the game into the plot (a couple is murdered after hosting a party) AND gave us a cliffhanger (Reid is kidnapped by the killer). “The Big Game” also introduced us to one of the show’s most memorable unsubs, James Van Der Beek’s Tobias Hankel. The storyline wrapped up three nights later with the episode “Revelations”, and Van Der Beek proved he was much more than Dawson’s Creek.

  • Malcolm in the Middle – “Company Picnic” (Super Bowl XXXVI, February 3, 2002)

This dysfunctional family sitcom was in its third season when it received the coveted post-Super Bowl time slot. The episode, titled “Company Picnic”, gives Bryan Cranston the opportunity to show off his slapstick skills. Guest stars include Christina Ricci, Bradley Whitford (then-husband of series star Jane Kaczmarek), Patrick Warburton, Stephen Root, and NFL legends Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long.

Malcolm in the Middle has one of my favorite theme songs of all time, courtesy of art rock/power pop duo They Might Be Giants

Fun fact: When Vince Gilligan was casting Breaking Bad, AMC – who knew Bryan Cranston only as Malcolm in the Middle‘s Hal – were skeptical that Cranston was right for the role of Walter White. AMC’s choice for the role was either John Cusack or Matthew Broderick. Thankfully, Gilligan (who had worked with Cranston on an episode of The X-Files called “Drive”) stuck to his guns, and Cranston went on to win a whopping four Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.

  • The Office – “Stress Relief” (Super Bowl XLIII, February 1, 2009)

I’ve saved the best for last. “Stress Relief” is the gold standard of Super Bowl lead-outs. First, there’s this masterpiece of a cold open, The Office at its chaotic best:

Then there’s this:

Michael confusing “Stayin’ Alive” with “I Will Survive” is perfection

I rest my case.

Fun fact: Jeffrey Blitz won an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for “Stress Relief”. The episode was also nominated for Outstanding Picture Editing for a Comedy Series but lost to 30 Rock.

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