T Dog’s Think Tank: “Family Guy” viewers become December fools

Well, look who’s back…


– Seth MacFarlane teaches fans a lesson – but it’s not the one you think

– A test of fan loyalty

– Jumping With The Sharks

Yours truly was in the process of writing a Think Tank about Brian Griffin, the dog who died on Family Guy recently, and how it would affect the program going forward, both creatively and financially (to read the unfinished piece, click here or here.)

As you recall, Brian was hit by a car and killed on the Nov. 25 episode and replaced by another dog, Vinnie (voiced by some guy from “The Sopranos”), which led many longtime fans to say the series…. wait for it – “jumped the shark”. It was the biggest shark jump on TV since Scooby-Doo found out he had a cousin named Scrappy.

Then this happened. On the Dec.16 episode in a copout ending, Brian was magically brought back to life when Stewie fixed his time machine, went back in time and saved Brian from the speeding car.

Shortly after the episode aired, Seth MacFarlane tweeted: “And thus endeth our warm, fuzzy holiday lesson: Never take those you love for granted, for they can be gone in a flash.” (he also tweeted the staff would had to be high to kill off a major character like Brian.)

Translation: this was about money, publicity, loyalty, and ad dollars, not about “loved ones” or other bullshit MacFarlane was spouting on Twitter.

The Family Guy writers wanted to test the loyalty of its fans by killing off a major character. And despite yours truly’s feelings to the contrary, the stunt did what it intended to do – to boost ratings and have people talking about Family Guy again, much to the inconvenience to the press and TV critics, who’d rather talk about The Mindy Project and The Daily Show ad nauseam. Even Family Guy’s producers and writers stuck to the script when interviewed by legitimate media outlets.

And it worked: the episode where Brian returned earned a 3.0 live-plus-same day rating in the key 18-49 adult demo, up 36 percent from the Nov. 25 episode where he died – the highest rating Family Guy achieved in little over a year. In fact, the Dec. 8 episode where Brian was absent, earned a 2.6 rating, up 18 percent from the Nov.25 episode.

Reaction to the news was mostly positive; many relived their beloved Brian is returning. Others said MacFarlane insulted the intelligence of his audience (write your own joke here) and said the plot outcome was a copout.

Hmmm.... not so fast.
Ummm…. not so fast.

So can Family Guy survive “Briangate”? Of course. Even if Brian hadn’t returned to the show, Family Guy’s ratings and revenue really wouldn’t be affected, given its continued strong performance on Fox and in syndication. After all, fans of adult animation are the most loyal bunch in all of television – one advertisers (especially video game companies and movie studios) count on. Look at The Simpsons – the series is still going strong after 25 seasons – and its Christmas episode was the third most-watched sitcom of the week, behind only The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. And this despite several missteps over the years, including rewriting the backstory for a ’90’s themed-episode. Yes, you can say these fans are quite a forgiving bunch, giving the championship-starved Chicago Cubs and Toronto Maple Leafs fanbases a run for their money.

But the best example is the loyalty of WWE fans, who somehow keep attendance and TV ratings high despite the absurdest of storylines. In 2007, a WWE storyline involved Mr. McMahon (WWE Chairman Vince McMahon) slowly becoming insane and depressed after losing to Donald Trump at Wrestlemania earlier in the year and having his head shaved. So the WWE held a “Mr. McMahon Appreciation Night” ceremony in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. to cheer him up.

After the show wrapped up, a distraught McMahon exited the arena and went into a limo and without warning, exploded (leading some fans to coin the phrase “blew the limo”.) The explosion – coordinated by a pyrotechnics company and taped days in advance – was even reported by the local media.  The storyline even went as far to plan a “funeral” for Mr. McMahon, but was scrapped when WWE wrestler Chris Benoit was involved in a real-life murder-suicide and McMahon had to address the situation after complaints were received over the airing of a Benoit tribute on the day of his death.  The solution? Vince McMahon “faked” his own death – you guessed it – a copout ending. By some miracle, the WWE managed to survive this idiotic debacle as long-term negative ratings effect were negligible.

Other programs who “jumped the shark” in recent years, surviving with their fan bases intact include the “ferry-boat” arc on Grey’s Anatomy, Colton Cumbie annoying contestants and viewers on Survivor (twice), and Aqua Teen Hunger Force pulling a similar stunt nearly three years ago involving the name and format of the show.

From a psychological standpoint, it is hard to understand why viewers stick with a show after repeatedly insulting their intelligence. Maybe they’re familiar with the plots and characters and are comfortable with them.

Or maybe it’s just TV. It’s probably the only thing that doesn’t require a brain to use. Or maybe that’s the problem.

Interestingly enough, Brian’s return to Family Guy hasn’t generated the same number of articles his death generated as TV critics have gone back to writing about how great Girls and Community is.  But the only number Seth MacFarlane cares about are the Nielsens – and this goes back to yours truly telling you two years ago right here in this space- this is a business. And this stunt sent a message to the TV community – critics and reporters in particular: you can write about cable shows that get lower ratings than infomercials, but it’s money and ratings that drive this business, not your accolades – or lack thereof. Yes, major missteps are made in writer’s rooms, but as long as the show’s ratings remains high and continues to be profitable, it doesn’t matter.

So the next time someone tells you a show “jumped the shark”, and starts going downhill, keep this in mind: how fast it reaches the absolute bottom depends on how steep the incline is.


2 thoughts on “T Dog’s Think Tank: “Family Guy” viewers become December fools

    • Have TV writers learned nothing since the mid-80’s, when Bobby Ewing was “killed”? When a prime time character dies, they should STAY dead!

      • [Editor’s Note: This comment has nothing to do with “Family Guy”, but it is a good observation, nonetheless – and Joe Queenan is one of my favorite writers. – T.H.]

        One of my favorite takes on spotrs fans is from writer and satirist, Joe Queenan, from Philadelphia. Joe states the fundamental fact about fans. It’s a municipal rather than a mythological connection. Sporting events always require a Cultural, Tribal or Municipal connotation. “… where you grew up, who dad rooted for, how many times the team has broken your heart …“. This is why a fans connection to the team is deeper than the players. Players are simply mercenaries who can be traded at the snap of a finger. No matter how hard players train eventually there magnificent physiques will succumb to the ravages of time and they leave the sport as old men in there middle 30’s. Fans on the other hand can live on a diet of cheese doodles, ball park hot dogs and room temperature beer for years. They never quit and of course a true fan never gets traded. The only way for the true believers to exit the stadium is permanently. As Joe Queenan points out spotrs is the complete package: Iconography, mythology, choreography, theology, and ethnography. (excerpt from TI-Tribal Imperative)

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