This Is Us Went From Being an Abandoned Film Script to a Breakout Hit. Here’s What’s Next

Adweek’s Show of the Year reinforces the power of broadcast

Art Streiber /August

Attending NBCUniversal’s upfront presentation last May, four days after NBC had picked up her pilot This Is Us, was a completely new experience for Mandy Moore. “Having been a part of pilot season for a number of years, but never having had a show picked up and actually go to upfronts, I was beyond thrilled. I had no idea that NBC took over Radio City Music Hall and what a gigantic production it was,” says Moore, who walked the red carpet that day with her new co-stars Milo Ventimiglia and Sterling K. Brown. “We were so excited. It felt like a celebration.”

Little did she and her castmates realize that the celebrating had only begun. Later that night, as the drama’s creator Dan Fogelman was in a cab heading to an upfront party, he received a text from NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. “She said, ‘Have you heard what’s going on with the trailer?’ I went online, and saw that things were already starting to explode,” Fogelman recalls of the show’s upfront trailer, which had quickly gone viral and racked up 50 million Facebook views in its first 11 days. “That was like Moment One, and it’s all been like that from there.”

The public’s infatuation with This Is Us—Adweek’s Show of the Year and Hottest Drama in our annual Hot List—has only grown since then. Last September, 10 million viewers watched the premiere, making it NBC’s most-watched scripted show in the time slot in more than seven years. Then, the pilot’s jaw-dropping twist—that the three siblings turning 36 (Brown, Chrissy Metz and Justin Hartley) were in fact the children of Ventimiglia and Moore’s characters, who were seen giving birth in what turned out to be a separate timeline—kept them coming back for more.

The buzz built all season, with the finale tallying the show’s highest-ever ratings (17.8 million total viewers in live-plus-7). The first season averaged 15.3 million total viewers and a 4.8 rating in the 18-49 demo in live-plus-7, according to Nielsen, making it the season’s most-watched hour-long broadcast entertainment series in the demo, and helping NBC retake the 18-49 crown this season. More importantly for advertisers, This Is Us had NBC’s highest commercial ratings this season (a 3.14 C3 rating; a 3.36 C7 rating) outside of football, and trailed only The Big Bang Theory and Empire among all broadcast entertainment series.

NBC is betting that the show will have an even bigger sophomore season, aggressively shifting the series to Thursdays at 9 p.m. this fall to anchor a revitalized lineup, including the revival of Will & Grace, that will feature the return of its Must-See TV branding for the first time since Will & Grace and Friends went off the air a decade ago. “It’s a really audacious play to move it, not without risks, but it’s a passionate audience and I think they will go wherever we put it,” said NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, who also scheduled This Is Us to air after the Super Bowl on Feb. 4.

Its success “shows the power of network television and what kind of enormous audience you can draw to something, that it’s possible to have these huge hits,” says Salke. “We all live with linear ratings going down and finding alternative ways to monetize our shows and getting smarter about digital. Giant, tent-pole hits like this are what help keep all of that afloat and thriving.” Adds Ventimiglia, “Times have changed, but an audience’s want for good storytelling doesn’t. If it’s good storytelling, people will tune in.”

No one was more surprised about the extent that This Is Us connected with audiences than Greenblatt, who had expected that it would have a similar ratings trajectory to his family drama Parenthood, which had modest ratings during its six-season run. And with softening linear numbers, “you don’t assume something is going to become as big as This Is Us did, you just can’t,” he says. “You’re conditioned to hope for the best and expect less than that.”

This story first appeared in the May 15, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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