Television shows exist to attract audiences. While certain series start as a passion project or as the result of fan demands, no show gets greenlit unless someone at a major network believes that it’s going to become a ratings hit. Sometimes - well, most of the time - that doesn’t happen. The list of shows that came and went after a season - or just a few episodes - is far longer than the list of beloved television series.
Just because a show isn’t an instant hit, though, doesn’t mean that a network is going to give up on it at the first opportunity. No, they’re going to do everything in their power to help it find an audience. More often than not, this results in a series of creative and promotional decisions best described as “plain dumb.”
Of course, even shows that are already popular aren’t immune to the desperate ploy known as the ratings stunt. They’re the kind of promotional tactics and creative moments that make you contemplate why you’re even bothering to watch this show at all. The worst among them are so devious and deplorable that they even come to define a series.
These are 15 Shows That Did STUPID Things to Boost Ratings.
15 The Walking Dead - Character Death Cliffhanger
The Walking Dead wasn’t exactly in a ratings tailspin by the time that the show’s sixth season made it to air, but the show’s ratings had begun to fluctuate in ways that it never had before. Fans of the series bemoaned the writer’s continued reliance on dragging out certain storylines past the point of relevance. In short, the show had too often become an “all talk, no action” kind of series.
The Walking Dead’s sixth season finale was supposed to be different.This was supposed to be an episode that was going to change the series forever by killing off a main character and introducing a major villain. Well, the major villain came into play and seemingly killed off a major character, but the death was kept off-camera and not revealed until the start of the next season. This especially infuriating cliffhanger confirmed critics’ worst fears regarding the future of the show.
14 Lost - Fake Character Death Promos
Lost isn’t the only show guilty of this - not even close - but there’s something especially infuriating about the way it constantly relied on this technique in order to hook an already engaged audience.
Several times during Lost’s run, the series’ commercials, trailers, and teasers suggested that someone will die in the next episode. Actually, they didn’t so much suggest it as they stated it outright then showed brief flashes of beloved characters.
Hilariously, Lost used this same technique to promote the deaths of both Boone and Shannon (two characters nobody cares about to this very day). That’s nothing compared to the preview of the season one episode “Homecoming” which straight-up used the “Someone will die” tagline. Ultimately, the person who died was Scott. Who was Scott? Exactly.
13 How I Met Your Mother Cameo - Britney Spears Cameo
Britney Spears’ peaks-and-valleys career is one of those pieces of celebrity pop culture that most people know about - even if they’d prefer not to. The very basic version of her story involves Spears’ rise to fame in the late ‘90s, her cementing herself as a respected singer around the release of "Toxic," and her eventual mental breakdown which involved the famous hair-shaving incident.
The “height” of her breakdown period arguably came in January 2008 when Spears lost custody of her children and spent some time in a mental institution. Less than a month later, CBS began heavily promoting Spears’ How I Met Your Mother cameo. To be fair, the episode delivered high ratings. Still, the timing of this episode and CBS' heavy-handed promotion felt especially cheap.
12 Grey’s Anatomy - Steamy Shower Dream
Is a stupid ratings stunt still a stupid ratings stunt if it works? We say yes. The prime example of this mini-phenomenon is the episode of Grey’s Anatomy which aired after Super Bowl XL in 2006. Y
ou have to understand that Grey’s Anatomy was already a very popular show at this point. It’s safe to say that anyone who watched the show was going to tune into this post-Super Bowl episode.
However, that didn’t seem to be enough for the show’s producers. They wanted to ensure that millions of football fans tuned in to watch the episode as well. Perhaps that’s why the episode began with a rather out-of-place shower session involving a few of the show’s female characters and a male co-worker. This sequence was quickly revealed to be a dream, but it helped Grey’s Anatomy achieve record ratings.
11 Buffy - Dracula Stunt casting
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the most beloved shows of all-time, but it was never a huge ratings hit. It drew higher ratings than most other WB shows but failed to place in the top 100 across all networks. WB did what they could to promote the show, but it was, perhaps, too strange for a larger audience.
In an effort to capitalize on more “acceptable” pieces of supernatural lore as part of the show’s promotion, WB ran a series of ads for Buffy’s fifth season which hyped an appearance by Dracula. The popular theory was that Dracula was going to be the show’s next “big bad” or main villain.
As it turned out, Dracula’s appearance lasted just one episode. The episode in question, meanwhile, was largely a comedic one. It’s unclear if the writers and marketing team were not on the same page or if Dracula’s appearance was kept short for comedic effect.
10 Alias - Jennifer Garner's Lingerie
Oh man, this episode.
Super Bowl XXXVII is remembered for two things. A really disappointing game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Oakland Raiders (the Bucs won 48-21) and a series of commercials showcasing Alias’ Jennifer Garner walking around in underwear. See, Alias was chosen as the coveted “after the Super Bowl” show.
In times past, these post-Super Bowl episodes have performed tremendously well. In order to ensure that Alias enjoyed similar success, the show’s producers flooded the network with commercials promising a scantily-clad Garner.
Even though that visual is arguably the defining image of Alias in the minds of many - especially if they didn’t watch the show - the marketing tactic was an utter failure. That episode of Alias drew the worst post-Super Bowl ratings since 1975. The real irony is that the episode itself was one of the series’ best.
9 Bones - Booth and Brennan kiss tease
The “Will they or won’t they kiss?” storyline is one of the most famous ratings grabs in TV history. We’re not quite sure why there is such widespread fascination regarding whether or not fictional characters will lock lips, but there’s no denying that millions of people are engrossed by the idea. Naturally, networks have used this to their advantage by teasing long-awaited smooches.
While The X-Files is the most famous example of a show that’s used teased kisses multiple times, Bones is the show that’s gotten the most mileage out of this concept. There have been many previews of Bones devoted to teasing the long-awaited kiss between Booth and Brennan. Sometimes, the producers went so far as to show dream sequences and other such occurrences when the characters “kiss” in the previews.
8 Survivor - Racial segregation
We apologize if you’re a fan of reality TV, but it really must be said that reality television is the biggest source of cheap promotional tactics this side of professional wrestling (more on that later). To be fair, there are some good reality shows. The first season of Survivor, for instance, will go down as one of the best examples of event programming in TV history.
The 13th season of Survivor will always be remembered as the season in which the producers tried to ignite a race war. In a desperate bid for ratings, the contestants on Survivor: Cook Islands were divided into groups according to their race.
Even though this element of the show was downplayed during the actual episodes, audiences rebelled against this idea in masse. The controversial ratings ploy backfired and several high-profile advertisers pulled their support of the show.
7 WWE - Vince McMahon Fakes His Own Death
Speaking of professional wrestling - we told you we’d get there - it must be said that this entire list could easily consist of nothing but WWE promotional tactics. Vince McMahon may be the most successful promoter in wrestling history, but he’s also the most shameless.
While the time that Vince McMahon tried to boost ratings by giving away money during a wrestling show is a notably sad example of a ratings stunt, it’s nothing compared to the time that he faked his own death. Yes, WWE once ran a storyline in which beloved owner Vince McMahon was killed in a fiery car crash. The worst part about this story is that they tried to pass it off as real. McMahon even withdrew from the public eye for awhile.
Ultimately, the story was canceled following the Chris Benoit murder/suicide scandal.
6 Happy Days - Literally Jumps the Shark
This is probably the most famous example of a ratings stunt on this list. In case you don’t know, the term “jumping the shark” is used to describe the exact moment that a popular show goes creatively downhill. It can be everything from a particularly bad storyline to a popular character leaving the show.
The term itself is taken from a notable episode of Happy Days which teased whether or not Fonzy was going to die during a stunt involving him literally ski-jumping over a shark.
Funnily enough, the “shark jump” ratings stunt actually worked in the short-term. Those episodes of Happy Days drew pretty good ratings. However, these episodes worked against the series in two ways. Fans of the more down-to-Earth origins of the show soon realized that the show was going in a different direction. Meanwhile, anyone who was a fan this style of TV gradually tuned out when they realized that this was as good as it was going to get.
5 Big Brother 13 - Rigged for Popularity
Before we let reality TV off the hook, let’s talk about the 13th season of the U.S. version of Big Brother. This season was based around the gimmick of having former Big Brother cast members compete against new players. It’s an old trick that many reality shows have relied on in the past.
The difference is that Big Brother’s 13th season was almost certainly rigged. Not only were veteran contestants given more screen time than the new housemates, but the show was edited in such a way that ensured the new players were portrayed as villainous.
Funnily enough, these tactics generated sympathy for the new cast members. Around that time, the producers employed some bizarre contest twists which all but ensured the new members had no chance of winning the game.
4 Civil Wars - Disrobed star fake-out
Civil Wars was a courtroom drama about the personal and professional lives of divorce lawyers that aired on ABC in 1991. If you’re struggling to remember this particular series, that’s because it was a pretty bad drama that was rightfully canceled after two seasons. Before that happened, though, ABC tried their best to get people to watch the series. At some point, they even resorted to just promising nudity on network television.
A series of promos for Civil Wars aired which heavily suggested that lead actress Mariel Hemingway was going to appear nude. Now, most viewers probably figured this was a ruse, but the point was that ABC decided to promote their (somewhat) critically acclaimed drama by teasing cheap nudity.
When the whole thing turned out to be a gross exaggeration - nothing more revealing than a thigh was shown - and the show lost both curious and long-time viewers.
3 Donald Trump “Buys” Monday Night Raw
Ah, we bet you thought we were going to let wrestling off easy by only highlighting one example of WWE's many desperate ratings stunts. How could we, though, without talking about the time that Donald Trump “bought” Monday Night Raw?
Yes, in 2009, the current President of the United States appeared on Monday Night Raw to announce that he’d purchased the program (not the company, mind you) and would be running it from now on. Much like Vince McMahon’s death, WWE acted like this was a real occurrence. They even sent out a formal press release.
Here’s where things get really funny. Upon WWE’s announcement of the “acquisition,” the company’s stock prices dropped dramatically. As it turned out, investors were worried about the company’s future now that Donald Trump seemingly had some kind of creative control within WWE. Following a 7% drop in stock value, WWE was forced to come clean.
2 Dynasty - Fake Massacre
ABC’s Dynasty was little more than a soap opera that aired in primetime. While the show was certainly a ratings hit and actually won quite a few Emmys, it was, in retrospect, little more than a series of melodramatic moments and increasingly bizarre occurrences all designed to entice viewers to tune in next week just to find out what would happen next.
The show’s legacy will forever be defined by the events of the Moldavian Massacre. At the end of Dynasty’s fifth season, all the show’s principal cast members had gathered in Moldavia to attend a wedding. This wedding - and the season - ended when terrorists burst in and seemingly shot everyone in attendance.
While this finale did draw record ratings - an astonishing 60 million people watched it - the show’s ratings gradually dipped when it was revealed that only a couple of minor characters had actually died.
1 All-American Girl - Tarantino Cameo
For the most part, All-American Girl was a forgettable 1994 TV show. The series deserves credit for its attempt at diversity - it followed the cultural differences within generations of a Korean-American family - it ultimately just wasn’t that good.
There is, however, one especially bad episode of the show that everyone needs to see.
In an effort to capitalize on the success of 1994’s Pulp Fiction, All-American star Margaret Cho had her real-life friend Quentin Tarantino appear on an episode. The episode in question, titled “Pulp Sitcom” is little more than a parody of Pulp Fiction. Yes, this show about the cultural struggles of an ethnic family made an utterly bizarre detour into pure parody for a single episode.
What’s worse is the fact that every Pulp Fiction joke in the episode plays out like the kind of thing a Saturday Night Live writer might pitch if he was trying to get fired.
Are there any rating stunts that you thought were just stupid? Sound off in the comments!
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