Must See TV was an advertising slogan that was used by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to brand its prime time blocks during the 1990s, and most often applied to the network's Thursday night lineup, which featured some of its most popular sitcoms and drama series of the period, allowing the network to dominate prime time ratings on Thursday nights in the 1980s and 1990s. Ratings for NBC's lineup fell during the mid-to-late 2000s, and today the network ranks behind Fox, ABC and CBS on Thursday nights. In 2015, the network canceled comedy programming on Thursdays and switched entirely to dramas.
In popular culture, the phrase is most strongly associated with the network's entire Thursday night lineup, including both sitcoms and dramas, which dominated the ratings from the 1980s through the late 1990s.
However, contrary to popular belief, "Must See TV" originally applied to sitcoms only (dramas would normally be promoted separately), and for much of the 1990s the phrase was used several nights a week as an attempt at brand extension. At one point in the fall of 1997, the brand was used five nights a week, with four sitcoms a night from Monday to Thursday, and two on Sunday. NBC itself would later adopt the more common interpretation; the 2002 retrospective, 20 Years of Must See TV, focused on NBC's overall dominance on Thursday nights from 1982 onwards, and overlooked extensions such as "Must See TV Tuesday."
Thursday nights are coveted by advertisers due to the large proportion of young, affluent viewers that watch television on that night of the week. Of particular interest, movie advertisers promote their upcoming releases to this target demographic on Thursday night, in hopes of influencing what movies they see on the following Friday, the traditional opening night for most films outside of holiday periods and certain major film releases outside said periods.
The "Must See" slogan was created by Dan Holm, an NBC promotional producer, during a network promo brainstorming session in June 1993 at NBC's West Coast headquarters in Burbank, California. "Must See TV" made its first appearance in NBC promotions in August 1993 and included the day of the week: "Must See TV Thursday." In late summer of 1993, NBC wanted viewers to tune in an hour prior to Seinfeld, and created the "Must See TV" slogan to brand the comedy block. The first "Must See TV" block promo aired during late summer repeats and promoted Mad About You, Wings and Seinfeld – Frasier had not yet premiered. The advertisement ended with the sentence "Get home early for Must See TV Thursday." The "Must See TV" slogan continued in every NBC Thursday night comedy promo throughout the fall/winter 1993 television season to promote the 8–10 p.m. comedy block. When Frasier and Wings were moved to Tuesday nights, NBC expanded the second season of the "Must See TV" brand to include the Tuesday night comedy block: "Must See TV Tuesday."
Branding the quality Thursday night lineup began as early as the 1982 fall season, which promoted Fame, Cheers, Taxi and Hill Street Blues as "America's Best Night of Television on Television."
On November 3, 1994, NBC's Thursday night lineup featured the "Blackout Thursday" programming stunt, in which three of the four sitcoms on that night's "Must See TV" schedule incorporated a storyline involving a power outage in New York City. The stunt started with Mad About You episode "Pandora's Box", in which Jamie Buchman (Helen Hunt) accidentally causes the blackout while trying to steal cable; it continued with the Friends episode "The One with the Blackout", featuring a sub-plot in which Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) is trapped in an ATM vestibule with Victoria's Secret model Jill Goodacre and ended with the Madman of the People episode "Birthday in the Big House" (the Seinfeld episode that followed Friends and preceded Madman, "The Gymnast", did not have a blackout storyline though was promoted as part of the event).
By the early 2000s, the "Must See TV" slogan had fallen by the wayside in NBC's promotions; more importantly, NBC had gone from the top-rated network on Thursday nights to second behind CBS, eventually third behind ABC and ultimately a distant fourth behind Fox. NBC failed to develop hit shows to replace long-running staples Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld, and Will & Grace.
After airing a two-hour comedy block on Thursday for 21 straight seasons, NBC broke with tradition in 2004 by replacing the 9 p.m. hour with the hour-long reality competition program The Apprentice, although its Thursday night lineup retained its top 20 position.
Thursday programming has also become increasingly stronger on other networks. CBS was first to break through with its lineup of Survivor, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and later Without a Trace. For the 2010–11 season, CBS moved the highly rated comedy The Big Bang Theory, which had become the highest-rated sitcom in the United States, to the Thursday 8:00 p.m. slot, and Two and a Half Men to the 8:30 p.m. slot, which have earned very strong ratings.
ABC had success on Thursday nights with its hit reality series, Dancing with the Stars, before moving the program to Mondays in 2006 (where it has remained since). In the fall of 2006, sophomore drama Grey's Anatomy was moved to Thursdays to counter CSI; ABC's lineup of Ugly Betty and Grey's Anatomy has proved successful in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic, and the 2011 transfer of Fox's American Idol, regarded as the longest reigning #1 program on U.S. television from 2004 to 2011, into the Thursday timeslot adversely affected NBC's ratings for Thursday primetime programming lineup since that television season.
The "Must See TV" slogan reappeared briefly in early 2006 with the addition of two critically acclaimed and ratings-successful comedies, My Name Is Earl and The Office, in an attempt to re-establish a four-sitcom block after the rise and fall of The Apprentice, which was moved to Monday nights.
In November 2006, NBC rebranded the Thursday format with a different slogan, "Comedy Night Done Right", and added another two critically acclaimed shows, Scrubs and 30 Rock to the lineup, forming an entire lineup of comedy series without laugh tracks or the multiple-camera setup common with past "Must See TV" comedies.
In January 2011, NBC rebranded the night once again, renaming it "Comedy Night Done Right – All Night", adding a third hour of comedies at 10 p.m. (the network had previously run a three-hour comedy lineup once annually on Thursdays during the late 1990s and early 2000s as a programming stunt). The three-hour comedy block was discontinued in the fall of 2011, when the night reverted to two hours of comedies and one drama and, in 2012, two hours of comedy and the news magazine Rock Center.
Change and record ratings lows
Prior to the 2013 fall season, NBC cancelled or ended nine of its eleven comedies, including the long-running 30 Rock and The Office, in an effort to broaden its comedy lineup. In May 2013, NBC picked up three family comedies (The Michael J. Fox Show, Sean Saves the World and Welcome to the Family) and rebranded its Thursday night lineup as "NBC's New Family of Comedies" for the fall season.
The debut of The Michael J. Fox Show was the lowest-rated Thursday fall comedy series premiere in network history. One week later, the debut of Welcome to the Family became the new record-holder, with Sean Saves the World ranking as the second lowest ever.
On October 10, 2013, NBC tied an all-time low on Thursday nights (tied with May 17, 2012), while finishing in seventh place. On November 21, 2013, NBC averaged a 1.0 in the adults 18–49 age bracket, its lowest ever in-season average for regularly scheduled programming on the night. On the same night, The CW defeated the NBC comedy block, a first for the network. All three shows were eventually cancelled (Welcome to the Family was pulled three episodes into its first season, while The Michael J. Fox Show and Sean Saves the World were dropped shortly before the 2014 Winter Olympics; in the case of The Michael J. Fox Show, this was despite NBC giving a 22-episode order for the series prior to its debut) and were replaced by critically acclaimed (though low-rated) Thursday night mainstays Community and Parks and Recreation in January 2014, which were joined by Hollywood Game Night in late February.
End of Must See TV
In May 2014, NBC announced their schedule for the upcoming fall schedule at upfronts, with only a single hour of Thursday comedy in fall for the first time since 2005. Veteran reality show The Biggest Loser would take the 8pm slot, followed by short-lived new comedies Bad Judge and A to Z and the final season of Parenthood. They also announced that breakout drama The Blacklist would take the 9pm slot at mid-season the week following the Super Bowl, hinting at the end of NBC's Thursday comedy tradition.
In December 2014, NBC announced their mid-season schedule, with three dramas scheduled on Thursday to compete with ABC. This is the first time NBC has not aired comedies on Thursday since 1981, drawing to a close the 33 year legacy of Must See TV. The final episodes of Parks and Recreation season seven were moved to Tuesdays, possibly in an attempt to burn off the last 13 episodes.
In May 2015, it was announced that for the first time in more than 5 years NBC Thursday's made its way back in the Top 50 most watched programming with The Blacklist being number 14. This is the best the night has done since The Office was in the Top 50 back in the 2009–10 season. It was announced in May 2016, that for a second year in a row that NBC Thursday entered in the Top 50 most watched programming with The Blacklist at 22 and new drama Shades of Blue at 35.
In May 2016, NBC announced the return of Thursday comedy for the 2016–17 season with returning comedy Superstore and new comedy The Good Place for the first time in two years. This marks the potential return of Must See TV.
NBC Thursday night lineup historyLime indicates the #1 most-watched program of the season. Yellow indicates the top-10 most-watched programs of the season. Cyan indicates the top-20 most watched programs of the season. Magenta indicates the top-30 most watched programs of the season. Orange indicates the top-40 most watched programs of the season. Silver indicates the top-50 most watched programs of the season.
Other series and specials
Several series aired on Thursdays to take advantage of the huge audience. These series include:
Specials that the network has aired on Thursdays to take advantage of the audience on that night:
Series airing on Thursday night during and after the run of "Must See TV" during the summer months have included Come To Papa, Last Comic Standing, Hit Me, Baby, One More Time, The Law Firm, Windfall and Love Bites.
Note: Friends's peak viewership in its 2004 series finale reached 80 million viewers as tallied by the Nielsen ratings (final 5 minutes).