Fox's The Following opened to killer ratings on Jan. 21, attracting 13.3 million viewers (which includes three days of DVR use). Week 2 was just as sizzling for the new Kevin Bacon thriller, which experienced an even bigger DVR lift. Not bad for a show that doesn't look and wasn't marketed like your typical broadcast drama.
It's still too soon to call The Following a hit, but if the ratings hold up, the series could have a profound influence on primetime programming. Here are some ways other networks may soon follow The Following (Mondays on Fox at 9/8c).
More dark TV
Viewers seem to be willing to stomach shows centered on maniacal baddies. And there's more to come this midseason, including NBC's Hannibaland The CW's Cult. Fox chief operating officer Joe Earley says audiences didn't object to The Following's grisly content. "It isn't like people came and didn't like what they saw," he says. "We had almost no complaints."
In fact, despite some pretty disturbing human images in The Following pilot, most complaints centered on a brutal scene involving a dog. "People are very protective of their animals," Earley says. "Don't mess with the German Shepherd."
Earley credits the low complaints to Fox's edgy marketing campaign, which made it clear that The Following contains shocking moments. "We didn't want to trick anyone into watching the show," he says. That meant showcasing an infamous scene in the pilot where a woman stabs herself with an ice pick, even though that took away the surprise. "You have a big debate from a marketing perspective whether or not to tease it," he says. "We ultimately decided that, from an informational standpoint, people were better off knowing that something like that would come. It's still a very satisfying viewing experience."
Will network execs attempt to add more dark elements to drama pilots now in the works? Earley warns against trying to emulate The Following's sinister feel. "I know a lot of people will be discussing this and asking whether broadcast goes more intense," he says. "I think our takeaway from it is, it's a unique concept with unique characters that cut through. This happens to be a dark show, but the quality of the writing, the acting, the pacing and the concept is the influence that will carry the show forward."
Bacon agreed to star in The Following only if there were 15 episodes per season, much like a cable show. Earley believes more A-list stars will see how Bacon got that deal and want a similar setup. "Already they can do cable and 10 or 13 episodes there and that's a season," he says. "Looking at a 15-episode order that works for a network and a studio could inspire other talent to say, 'OK, wait, I can do this broadcast show and still do my movies in between.'"
More top talent
This spring's network pilots are already full of major stars, such as Michael J. Fox, Greg Kinnear, Anna Faris and Toni Collette. Earley says there's a real benefit to signing a big name. "It does help you break through because if they are of a certain caliber they can get on talk shows — where you can reach women effectively — and in magazines," he says.
Even with the amount of money Fox poured into launching The Following, Earley says there's a threshold of how much awareness can be achieved on a new show. "Bacon's name and association alone brought tremendous awareness to the project. What I have seen many times is that the bigger the star, the experienced actor who has a long career is actually the easier to work with. They understand the business, they understand marketing and publicity, and they are sensitive to their own career."
More promos touting DVR use
Looking to increase numbers for The Following's first episode, Fox asked viewers to record it on DVR. "We wanted people to sample this show because it's so good and we believe in it," Earley says. "We have to get them to take the time to figure out when they're going to watch a show... It did not appear to be harmful to The Following, which is your biggest fear."
Earley says he plans to employ the tactic again: "We like the result. It is something we believe we will do for new shows."
More Fox ratings mojo
It was a rough fall for Fox, as viewers soundly rejected new series like The Mob Doctor and Ben and Kate (both now canceled). But the early ratings for The Following, coupled with a respectable start for American Idol, has given network execs their first taste of optimism in a while and helped change the ratings race so far this midseason. "The world we live in now, you don't get to experience joy, you just get to experience relief," Earley says. "And that's what we're experiencing right now."