Ratings Stunt

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Any out-of-the-ordinary action or development in a show enacted solely to boost Ratings, usually during Sweeps week, or when a show is in dire straits in terms of viewership.

In comedies, it's usually a Celebrity Star or Special Guest or possibly a Very Special Episode; in dramas it's usually a great crisis that will affect everyone in the cast, often with the possibility that Tonight Someone Dies; in news shows it's a sudden focus on "lifestyle" stories with a prurient air about them. (See Pervs Sell Products.) In reality or game shows, it features a celebrity player or the (often unnecessary) return of famous contestants from past seasons. Sometimes, it can refer to a one-off, standalone special or event, such as having an extra-spectacular actual stunt being performed.

Ratings stunts are always heavily promoted in order to pull in as many viewers as possible, but the advertisements can often be coy and teasing, blotting out the face of the celebrity guest or showing all the possible candidates for a gratuitous death scene. Promos for news stunts will be designed to extract the most lascivious potential from the most staid of phrasing.

A poorly-executed Ratings Stunt may cause a show to Jump the Shark, while having many in a single season may indicate the show already has.

Examples of Ratings Stunt include:
  • Parodied in the South Park episode "Quest for Ratings". The boys, hosting a news programme on school TV, get soundly beaten by Craig's "Animals Close-Up With a Wide-Angle Lens", so they decide to sex it up not unlike cable infotainment shows. Craig ups it by giving the animals hats. The boys up it by advertising and showing that Craig was high on cough-syrup when he made it. Eventually, the boys pack it in when they realise they have to pull stunts week after week.
  • One of the more noticeable stunts seen in the 1990s was the lesbian kiss. The first was between attorneys C.J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) and Abby Perkins (Michele Green) on L.A. Law back in 1991. Both Roseanne and Ally McBeal famously threw in a little girl-girl liplock. And Jennifer Aniston once kissed two women in a single episode of Friends.
    • Which got mocked in Ansem Retort: Ansem won't give into Zexion's demands for more lesbians on the show cause he's saving that for when they need a cheap ratings boost.
  • The Bill likes to kill its officers, and had a gay kiss. No, not at the same time.
  • Subverted by WWE SmackDown!, as Ho Yay characters Billy and Chuck finally came out as gay, and planned a gay wedding to occur live on the show. However, right before the minister pronounced them man and husband, both men stopped the wedding and announced that they weren't really gay and the whole thing was a publicity stunt orchestrated by their "stylist", Rico. Billy did, however, give us one last Ho Yay moment by saying, "If I was gay, I probably would marry Chuck."
    • The LGBT community cried "foul" over this bait-and-switch. The Internet Wrestling Community responded with "Did you really think the WWE was going to go through with that? Really?"
  • Survivor did this one with the decision to divide the castaways by race. As of yet, they still haven't owned up to it.
    • They also did this with the decision to borderline fix a few seasons for their personal pets to win, casting the most braindead and oblivious of all the applicants they can find, and again when two other creators pets were cast. It backfired as Redemption Island and South Pacific were considered examples of Seasonal Rot
  • Spoofed in an episode of The Drew Carey Show which tried every Ratings Stunt in the book in a desperate bid for an Emmy nomination.
    • Of course, they did it more than that; you don't get a Shout-Out in a Weird Al song for all of your gimmick episodes for nothing!
  • On the night that ITV was due to open in 1955, The BBC killed off one of the lead characters in its Radio Soap Opera The Archers (this was of course at a time when radio could compete for ratings with television). ITV naturally cried foul.
  • Parodied mercilessly on The Daily Show. A self-identified "stunt" involving sending a correspondent to a remote location and having viewers guess where he was (cheerily ripped off from an identical stunt on a 'real' news show) goes badly wrong when it becomes apparent that the correspondent in question (Stephen Colbert) has been kidnapped. The others on the show either don't notice, or are so determined to work the ratings that they keep to the script and ignore his increasingly desperate pleas for help.
  • Parodied in Arrested Development. The intro sequence is replaced with an excited announcement of guest stars, solving all plot points, and of course Tonight Someone Dies. There are even a few 3D Glasses and a website plug in the episode. To top it all off, the last few seconds would be "transmitted live". The entire episode is a commentary on how they could rely on cheap gimmicks to boost its (low) ratings.
  • The "Moldavian Massacre" on the 80's hit show Dynasty. Used almost solely as a way to force the stars to renegotiate their salaries, this season-finale cliffhanger appeared to have the entire Carrington family (and guests) massacred by Moldavian commandos during a wedding ceremony. When the show came back the next season, the expectations of the fans were understandably high... then they found out that, save for two unimportant people who died, everyone else wasn't injured at all.
  • Subverted / Parodied in Dead Set. When the Big Brother housemates find all the cameras are off and no-one's talking to them, they assume it's this. They continue to assume when one of the staff, Kelly, runs in with a bloody pair of paper scissors and starts screaming about zombies. They are wrong.
  • Parodied on Mr. Show, where, during a Very Special Episode moment, Bob goes "Here comes the highest rated moment in television!" Of course, the result is hilariously underwhelming and quickly forgotten.
  • In the fourth-season opener of Deep Space Nine, the ever-popular Worf from The Next Generation was added to the regular cast. This is a rare moment of a Ratings Stunt done right, more or less.
    • Voyager decided to shoot for higher ratings by adding the full-figured, catsuit-wearing Jeri Ryan as Borg-turned-human Seven of Nine. It worked.
      • Not that this was only due to the catsuit. Seven was pretty much the only character in the series, besides the doctor, who received development.
      • It's worth noting that the writing in the season that introduced Seven really increased in quality, possibly due to Deep Space Nine starting to wind-down.
  • Parodied and lampshaded in Excel Saga, where episode 8 is called "Increase-the-Ratings Week", features nothing but sexy girls in the swimming pool showing their bodies, all but one of the male characters are off-screen or explicitly blocked by someone else, and at the end of the episode they try to kill the one male character who got screen time out of jealousy. "Outcome: unknown yet".
    • The writers also introduce Ropponmatsu I and II for ratings.
  • Two in-universe occurrences in Law and Order: In the first, the host of a chat show "accidentally" lets slip the location of an interview of a convicted child molester to the child's father, in the hope he will attack or kill the molester on live TV. In the second, the producer of a reality show similar to The Real World manipulates two of the housemates into having a fight in which one of them accidentally dies.
    • The short-lived Law and Order LA did this twice in their only season: first adding Terrance Howard as a the lead on a second "Order" team, then later dropping Skeet Ulrich, moving Alfred Molina into his slot (and into the show's top billing) and bringing in Alana de la Garza from The Mothership to take Molina's place. It didn't work.
  • If Courtney Cox gets a new show, you can bet there will be a fellow Friends actor guest-starring at some point to boost ratings.
    • Done. Courteney Cox stars on Cougartown, and Lisa Kudrow is guest starring as her dermatologist.
  • The ridiculously-hyped kiss between Claire Bennet and her female roommate in volume five.
  • Britney Spears's guest appearance on How I Met Your Mother is largely considered this mainly because the episode in question aired during (one of) the peak(s) of Britney's infamy.
  • Jeopardy! has one in "The IBM Watson Challenge": The show's two biggest winners, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, square off against IBM's Watson supercomputer, the first nonhuman to ever play a live game of Jeopardy.
    • In fairness, the point was to make a system that could answer queries made in natural language, with all its quirks, and what better acid test than Jeopardy? It's not like Jeopardy's ratings need the help.
    • There was also the tame but effective "stunt" of removing the 5-day limit for returning champions, opening the door for really good players, like Ken Jennings, to play for a really long time. The long-term downside of this move is the risk of Boring Invincible Hero syndrome, but they still can and will lose eventually.
  • Pretty common on most Brazilian soap operas. The plot tends to start softly, most with the same tranquil beginning. However, if the initial ratings aren't high enough, one of the main cast characters is bound to have a drastic change in their life, usually by suffering an accident, being conned or having a sudden family-breaking revelation take place. However, some of these twists were already a planned by the author since the start.
  • Donald Trump tried this by hinting an potential run for President on The Apprentice. The stunt backfired badly, as the ratings went down.
  • An odd example with The X Factor. The show is hugely successful and the papers are constantly following it. At the beginning of one series long time host Louis Walsh quit the show after some very public insults from Simon Cowell. Then during one of the shows Cowell suddenly feels something isn't right and "unexpectedly" goes off to find Walsh and bring him back to the show.
  • In the short-lived lawyer drama Civil Wars, ABC tried to drum up interest by having lead actress Mariel Hemmingway appear completely nude. While Hemmingway was clearly naked on screen, the scene itself (where Hemmingway's character was posing for a fashion shoot) used posing, lighting and camera angles to ensure nothing more than slight sideboob and upper thighs were shown.
  • To drum up buzz for it's struggling first-season sitcom, Roc, FOX had an episode performed and broadcast live, along with guest starring lead Charles S. Dutton's then-wife, Debi Morgan. The stunt worked so well, that the entire second season of Roc was done live. Ratings improved, but not much, and the show was cancelled after one more, non-live, season.
  • Think about this - a season of Big Brother wherein famous duos make a return to the game. They were promised to make it to the Jury, and are edited to be the sole focus of the show. The eight new people they're competing against are cast as sacrificial lambs, intentionally left Out of Focus (at best) and made to be a complete villain (at worst) so that the fans on the boards won't miss them. The returnees meanwhile get the lion's share of screentime and become the targets of benevolent editing. When things start going the newbies' way, the producers step in, introduce a "twist" and a series of events that benefits them and "only" them while throwing challenges that one of them has competed in before to make sure that one of them would win. Dethroning Moment of Suck that's a big Take That to such fans of the show? Sad thing is...it actually happened. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you...Big Brother 13 of the U.S. series.
    • The sad thing is? It actually seemed to work, cuasing many fans to be curious on how the worst season managed to get higher ratings. Some people have theorized that several producers Rage Quit and went to a similar show called, "Glass House".
  • Arguably the programming block The 90s Are All That on Tee Nick could count as this. The block consists of 90's Nick shows and was inspired also by complaints on social networking sites from people who grew up in The Nineties about Nick's current programming. Considering most of what Teen Nick shows all day is Degrassi repeats, they needed a ratings boost. And it worked. The block even had better ratings than late night shows such as Leno, Fallon, Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel.
  • The Simpsons episode "Large Marge" was obviously made to appeal to the more perverted viewers.
  • Any half-hour SpongeBob SquarePants episode promoted as a special isn't really a special. Nick just calls them specials to get higher ratings.
  • Unshelved shows here what to do if you want high attendance figures for a lecture.