Setting the Tone for Sticking the Landing: CBS’s Approach to How I Met Your Mother

Mike Hannemann

CBS is probably the smartest network on television. Let me immediately clarify that sentence. Their programming isn’t the smartest – not by a long shot. It’s the reigning network king for primetime dramas and comedies, having dethroned NBC years ago. Personally, I devote an hour of my life every week to CBS, two sitcoms are all that interest me. And that’s even on the heavy end of the 25-35 demographic. There are no Facebook updates on Hawaii Five-0 or Sherlock. I don’t go to work and hear people talking about Survivor anymore. In five years? Well, who knows. My peer group may be super into CSI: Dubuque.

I can’t, however, insult the intelligence the network heads have for their scheduling. It’s solid and air-tight. Their dramas compete with the right dramas to win and they smartly place their comedies on nights where other networks won’t be able to compete in the big leagues. As much as I love Parks and Recreation, it’s always going to lose to Two and a Half Men. With no real education in this, I can’t really say that I draw these claims from technical knowledge… just a deep-rooted obsession with TV for the past 20 years of my life. Which is why finding out CBS’ approach to ending their second-highest-rated sitcom was so fascinating.

First, a quick recap: How I Met Your Mother is currently in a ninth and final season. It started as a low-rated test to see if TV audiences would take to a show with a mildly distinct and unique narrative structure – yet also one that could easily be drawn out for, well, nine seasons. It landed and turned into the network’s biggest sitcom after The Big Bang Theory (a quick check of the numbers also puts Two and a Half Men in that category). Like all popular shows, the network wanted to hold onto it as long as possible. But since creative minds finally have at least some say in when and how a show would end, a deal was struck to conclude in 2014. (Sidebar: Can you imagine what that would have been like 10 years ago? When, if even for a moment, network execs would stop and listen to the writers that enough is enough?)

The interesting part is how they’re going to do it.

HIMYM is going to end on March 31st, burning off its final two episodes. One of the highest-rated shows is going out in March, not May. Not with a big finale to compete with the other networks ending their seasons. Instead, on a date that is one of the slowest times of the year for television (the top three of course being November sweeps, February sweeps, and May). The crazier part is that this is in the midst of one of the biggest sporting events of the year: the NCAA tournament. A tournament that CBS airs. It makes no sense, on paper. But when you elaborate on it, it’s genius.

Not that the show needs the advertising, but being able to promote the finale during the tournament is huge. It was already going to be talked-about but now CBS is creating an island in the middle of the TV landscape for this to be the ONLY event. How many times do you think people are going to hear “How I Met Your Mother series finale event” during the course of March Madness? If it’s anything less than 12 per game, I’d be honestly shocked.

Let’s go back to the island metaphor. CBS is creating something unique for the show to land on. This is the only thing happening at the end of March. There’s nothing for anyone else to talk about… so why not talk about this? Viewers who didn’t care much for the show will at least have nothing else distracting them. It won’t be a big week because a list of shows are ending for the season – it’s a big week because one show, THIS show, is ending. And since it all ties back into advertising, CBS looks to increase that revenue as well because of it.

Finally, this basically leaves a spot on the bench to fill at the perfect time. CBS is known for having many comedy pilots that go to series and are canceled because… well, they’re awful (stay in your room, Rob!). But there are always shows with potential for greatness that never get the chance to get there. Creating a seat in the middle of CBS’s comedy lineup after coming off the wave of a series finale and into a wave of rising expectations for everything else ending for the season is the perfect spot to put something new in. Something (hopefully, a little experimental like HIMYM was) that deserves that little bit of an extra chance.

Network TV shows end in a lot of different ways. Some are critically acclaimed but end quietly, like 30 Rock did last year. Some shows are burned off during the summer with networks airing episodes just because they have nothing else to put on. And most end in May, competing with each other for every precious (if arguably obsolete thanks to streaming) ratings tick. CBS has shown intelligence in its programming tactics, and their willingness to take a chance to create a new standard on how you can use a show’s ending to help both creative and corporate parties is nothing short of brilliant.

But then I read about their potential spinoff How I Met Your Father that’s in pilot mode right now and I’m tempted to take everything I just said back.

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