‘This Is Us’: 5 Lessons for Networks Hoping for Their Own Breakout Hit

NBC’s freshman drama points the way to success without procedural formulas

This Is Us

NBC’s new Tuesday night drama “This Is Us” is the kind of show people at the TV networks dream about.

That is to say, it’s a big hit.

The contemporary character drama is the No. 1 new show of the fall in the crucial adults aged 18 to 49 demographic, according to Nielsen, with an average 4.1 rating in the “L3” category, measuring all viewing up to three days after the original airing.

By comparison, ABC political thriller “Designated Survivor,” also a hit, has a 3.0 rating in L3.

There’s no reliable formula for creating a hit, of course — if there was, TV development would be a lot easier. But there are some takeaways from NBC’s experience with writer-producer Dan Fogelman’s “This Is Us” that can be applied to prime time at large.

Put On What’s Not On

Like all businesses, TV networks are on a hunt for what will sell, and copying what’s worked in the past represents the safest bet. That explains why Dick Wolf has made a fortune churning out multiple versions of “Law & Order” and his “Chicago” franchise. But such mass production can make it easier to stand out with a show like “This Is Us,” a nuanced family dramatic comedy that tells the stories of multiple characters struggling to find their way in contemporary America. It’s not a detective story; there’s no case to wrap up in a tidy bow at the end of every episode, like on CBS’ courtroom procedural “Bull.” It’s not soapy and over-the-top like “Empire.” There’s nothing else like “This Is Us” anywhere else on broadcast prime time right now — which is a big reason why it’s broken through.

You Don’t Need Stars

High-profile performers can drive sampling of new shows. ABC proved that again with “Designated Survivor,” where the presence of Kiefer Sutherland helped sell the premise to viewers. Same story on CBS’ “Bull,” which traded on the starring role for Michael Weatherly, well-known to “NCIS” fans. But “This Is Us” proves that stars aren’t required, as long as the concept and execution are strong enough. The ensemble for “This Is Us” includes some fine performers in Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia and Justin Hartley, among others, but the show isn’t pegged exclusively to any of them. It’s a broader idea than that.

Focus on Your Pilot

Pilots are hard to make. These first episodes must lay down the premise for the series and introduce all or at least most of the major characters, while still telling a story interesting enough to make audiences want to come back. Pilots can’t be all exposition, but they can’t be all action, either. With “This Is Us,” Fogelman did an exemplary job of laying out the characters and their conflicts in the first episode, teasing viewers enough to make them want to return to the tale of grown-up twins Kate and Kevin (Chrissy Metz and Justin Hartley) and their messy family lives. That proved crucial, because the trailer for the pilot was viewed more than 17 million times in three days when it dropped last May – a new record. That built widespread anticipation for the series come fall.

Be Smart About Diversity

TV networks have spent much time discussing diversity, but Fogelman proved that there’s still room for innovation in how diversity is portrayed in prime time. To wit: He gave Jack and Rebecca (Ventimiglia and Moore) a black adopted son, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — who grows up to have a complicated journey with his own biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones), a recovering drug addict. Fogelman found a fresh, natural, inventive way to tell a story with diverse characters — a good lesson for other TV writers.

Scheduling Still Matters

In an age of delayed, on-demand viewing, it’s become fashionable to call TV scheduling a dying art. Who cares what the telecast time is any more, unless it’s for a competition or awards show? But “This Is Us” proves that scheduling can still be beneficial. NBC executives put the show behind its singing contest “The Voice,” still one of the biggest hits on network TV. The move virtually ensured at least a sampling for the new drama. And in the future? “This Is Us” might be the established hit that helps break out another hit or two in the cluttered prime time lineup.