The Good Doctor Is Bringing the 10 p.m. Broadcast Drama Back to Life and Might Save ABC, Too

The breakout medical drama could finally get the network out of fourth place

The Good Doctor became this season’s top-rated new drama in both total viewers and the 18-49 demo. ABC/Bob D’Amico
Headshot of Jason Lynch

During ABC’s upfront presentation last May, Disney-ABC Television Group advertising sales president Rita Ferro enthusiastically touted all of the network’s current and upcoming shows in her pitch to buyers. But when she arrived at Tavern on the Green in New York for ABC’s upfront after-party, Ferro—who had been put in charge of the entire Disney-ABC portfolio three months earlier—made it clear which program she was truly most excited about: The Good Doctor, the medical drama starring Freddie Highmore as Dr. Shaun Murphy, a fledgling surgeon with autism and savant syndrome, who starts his residency at a San Jose, Calif., hospital.

“At our after-party, the only person I took a picture with was [Highmore]. I said, ‘I want to take a picture with you now before you become too big to want to take a picture with me,’” recalls Ferro. “After watching all of our pilots last year, I knew this was going to be the show.”

It’s a good thing Ferro grabbed that Highmore photo when she had the chance: The Good Doctor became this season’s top-rated new drama in both total viewers and the 18-49 demo, as well as ABC’s most-watched freshman series since Lost debuted in 2004 (it’s averaging 16.9 million total viewers in live-plus-7 ratings). Even better for advertisers, it’s already ABC’s No. 1 series in the C3 commercial ratings for the 18-49 demo (a 2.39 rating; ahead of the network’s other hit medical show, Grey’s Anatomy), and is No. 5 among all entertainment shows on TV. In the C7 metric, the show climbs to a 2.71 rating, No. 4 overall, behind only The Walking Dead, This Is Us and The Big Bang Theory.

Networks have been searching for the next ER since that medical drama ended in 2009 after 15 seasons. Hulu began streaming the hit series for the first time in January—sparking a new wave of ER nostalgia—and with The Good Doctor proving there is still a massive audience appetite for the genre, the timing seems right for NBC to consider a revival. NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt says he has had “a couple of conversations” with ER executive producer John Wells about bringing back the series, “and the timing didn’t seem right. Maybe that will change in the future, but there’s no activity on ER at the moment. But if John Wells wanted to do it, believe me, we’d be there with open arms.”
ER: NBCU Photo Bank

As The Good Doctor has increased ABC’s Monday 10 p.m. audience by 177 percent in total viewers and 162 percent in the 18-49 demo, the show has also boosted ratings for its affiliates’ late local news, not to mention Jimmy Kimmel Live, which has topped Late Show and The Tonight Show in total viewers on six Mondays this season. “Having a successful 10 o’clock hour helps our entire ecosystem in broadcasting,” says Andy Kubitz, evp, programming strategy, programming, planning and scheduling, ABC Entertainment.

The freshman drama’s success, combined with the network’s midseason revival of American Idol and this week’s return of Roseanne, has put ABC within striking distance of tying or surpassing CBS and Fox in the season’s 18-49 broadcast ratings, where the network has been stuck in fourth place since the 2015-16 season. “It’s huge for them,” says Betty Pat McCoy, svp, managing director and director of investment, GSD&M. “They need to have a good anchor to start rebuilding, and this show hopefully will help them do that. This turns you around and makes people start looking at a network again.”

Since ER went off the air in 2009, broadcasters have been desperately searching for the next great medical drama to take its place. But aside from Chicago Med, which has been a solid addition to NBC’s Chicago franchise, most of the attempts lasted just one season, including Mercy, Heartbeat, Three Rivers, A Gifted Man, Pure Genius, The Mob Doctor and Emily Owens, M.D.

“As a development community, we got caught up in trying to figure out how to one-up ER. And it was gimmick- or plot-oriented, and not character- or theme-driven,” says Jason Clodfelter, co-president of Sony Pictures Television, which produces The Good Doctor. “That’s why people have responded to The Good Doctor. It didn’t feel like it was setting out to be something other than just be honest.”

ABC/Bob D’Amico

The series is based on the 2013 South Korean drama with the same name, which was also about a surgeon with autism. Lost and Hawaii Five-O star Daniel Dae Kim, the show’s executive producer, developed it for a U.S. audience in 2014 with CBS Television Studios, where his production company 3AD had a development deal. When CBS passed, Kim took the project to Sony, finding a partner in David Shore, who had independently sparked to the Korean series.

“I was moved and inspired by it,” says executive producer and showrunner Shore, whose previous medical drama, House, ran for eight seasons on Fox. His enthusiasm prompted a bidding war among ABC, NBC and Fox; ABC prevailed. Shore’s script even moved ABC’s jaded development execs, who read on average 55 scripts multiple times during development season as they determine which pilots to order. “You get bleary-eyed sometimes, but when something is so spectacularly written that it makes you laugh and cry, and everyone on the team has the same feeling, you know you have something special,” says Brian Morewitz, svp, head of drama development, ABC Entertainment.

Even so, as ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey points out, “if you don’t have the right person bringing Dr. Shaun Murphy to life, then you’re nowhere.” Shore found that actor in Highmore, who met with the showrunner just three days after wrapping his five-season run on Bates Motel, where he played Norman Bates. Highmore, who hadn’t anticipated jumping back into another series so quickly, passed initially, but was drawn to a “fascinating” character that offered so much potential. “Of course, he will always have autism and that’s not something that is going to be changed,” says Highmore. “But there’s still so many ways in which he can grow as a person.”

After ABC’s upfront, audiences flocked to the show’s trailer, which received 35 million views on YouTube and Facebook. And The Good Doctor “really popped” during last summer’s upfront sales, says Ferro.

ABC kept that momentum going in the fall with a marketing campaign that was “as heartwarming and inspirational as the show,” says Rebecca Daugherty, evp, marketing, ABC Entertainment. That emotional approach ended up being so effective, she adds, that “we’ve taken a page out of that playbook for the Idol promotion.”

As the show became a hit, Daugherty leveraged the actor’s popularity (“Young women seem to really like Freddie Highmore a lot!” says Dungey) to keep fans engaged with a variety of social media videos featuring him, and tailored marketing elements to Bachelor fans, when that show took over for Dancing With the Stars as The Good Doctor’s lead-in, in January. She did the same thing when American Idol replaced The Bachelor this month. ABC has also been targeting viewers of rival reality show The Voice (see photo caption below).

So how has The Good Doctor been able to connect with such a large audience? Dungey says that viewers are seeking an “escape” from politics, weather-related disasters and other bleak current events. “They’re looking for storytelling that’s a little bit more joyous and hopeful, particularly in broadcast television,” she says. Adds Kim: “We’re counterprogramming to a lot of the cynicism and darkness that we see on TV shows. You can be successful following the trend, or you can be successful countering a trend, and I think we’re the latter.”

While ABC was working to make sure Dancing With the Stars audiences stuck around for The Good Doctor on Monday nights last fall, it was simultaneously targeting viewers of Dancing’s time-slot rival, The Voice. ABC marketing chief Rebecca Daugherty says her team thought NBC’s 10 p.m. Monday series, military drama The Brave, “was not a feel-good show” and therefore incompatible with Voice audiences. So her team “conquested” Voice viewers who were talking about the music competition show on Twitter. “We served them up with tweets, trying to push them into Good Doctor, even though it was on another network,” says Daugherty. “We felt that Good Doctor is a better match for The Voice’s audience, and we knew they would be released at 10 o’clock, so we made sure we went after them. It worked well for us.”
Trae Patton/NBC

After seeing how audiences have responded to The Good Doctor’s “closed-ended” (i.e., procedural) storytelling, Dungey says she has “doubled down” on the format during ABC’s current development season, with more than half of its pilots procedurals instead of serialized, marking a big shift for the network. Morewitz added that several new pilots feature underdog characters like Murphy, which used to be a regular staple of ABC series like Ugly Betty. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had that kind of underdog on our air, so it was great to find that focus again,” he says.

The Good Doctor is also bucking the conventional wisdom that broadcast dramas can no longer thrive at 10 p.m., because audiences would rather watch cable dramas, catch up on their DVR or stream Netflix during that hour. However, this series proves that “folks are still willing to watch television in that hour. It just takes something new or fresh to recapture their attention,” says Nick Hartofilis, evp of national investment, Zenith. “If you look at the prime-[time] grids, everything is crime drama everywhere. And this represents something very different from that.”

Throughout The Good Doctor’s first season, Shore has employed a lesson he learned on House, where “I had to resist the temptation to make him likable,” he recalls of the caustic doctor played by Hugh Laurie. “There’s sometimes a temptation to normalize this character, and we have to continue to be true to who he is and trust that the audience will continue to love him for that.”

Because Highmore’s deal caps The Good Doctor’s season at 18 episodes, the show’s first season will conclude with Monday’s season finale. Shore says the episode will “pay off the promise we made in the initial episode” about whether Shaun will be able to live up to the deal struck by his mentor and hospital president Aaron Glassman (played by Richard Schiff), who said both he and Murphy would step aside if Murphy ended up not being as brilliant a doctor as Glassman had promised. Also, “Shaun will make a mistake,” teases Shore, “and what is the fallout of that?”

The season may be over after Monday, but Sony and ABC have big plans to keep The Good Doctor front and center until it returns in the fall, including an Emmy campaign (Highmore was nominated for a Golden Globe in January); an international push (Highmore will be promoting the program in Japan, Sydney and New Zealand; Clodfelter says the show is already a hit in the U.K. and Australia); and, at some point, a streaming deal with an SVOD provider like Netflix or Hulu, which will give new viewers a chance to catch up in time for Season 2.

As May’s upfront approaches, ABC, which officially renewed The Good Doctor earlier this month, will need to determine whether to keep the show on Mondays at 10 next season, or move it elsewhere to help launch a new series. Kubitz says that while Season 2 is historically the best time to shift a hit show, and network execs will certainly explore that, “I’m not going to be that eager to move it,” given its current value to ABC’s affiliates and Kimmel. Dungey concurs that she’d only shift it to provide an irresistible “one-two punch” with a new series.

No matter where The Good Doctor ends up on the schedule this fall, one thing is certain: buyers will be paying a lot more for it. “For most people, it’s going to be on their must-buy list. They’re all going to want this in our plan, because clients like it, it’s a feel-good program but not too feel-good, it’s a safe environment to be in, and it’s smart writing. That’s not a lot of programs you could say that about,” says McCoy, who expects ABC to “jack the price up,” much as the network did after Desperate Housewives’ first season, when it “tried to double” the cost during the next year’s Season 2 upfront. (In last year’s upfront, ABC saw pricing of $140,000 per 30-second spot for The Good Doctor, which increased to $180,000 in the scatter market.)

Ferro isn’t talking pricing, but confirmed that the series will be a major focus of her upfront plan, and monetizing the show beyond the C3/C7 window—through digital platforms and delayed viewing—will be an “extraordinarily important” element of how she’ll be positioning The Good Doctor in the upfront.

While ABC is counting on increased ad revenue from The Good Doctor next season, the network is still holding out hope that the series will help get it out of fourth place among broadcasters in the 18-49 demo this season. The network currently is averaging a 1.5 rating, just one-tenth of a point behind CBS and Fox, at 1.6, with Roseanne still to debut and two more months of American Idol to air. Emerging from fourth place, especially with hit drama Scandal airing its series finale next month (and the network’s most prolific producer, Shonda Rhimes, now exclusively making new series for Netflix), would give the network reason to celebrate during May’s upfront.

“They could potentially be able to come out of the cellar in a couple of key demos,” says Hartofilis. “If they can come out in the spring and talk about a couple of big projects that worked and they weren’t the No. 4 broadcast network this year, that could really change the story for them and give them the feel of momentum.”

This story first appeared in the March 26, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.