From NBC’s ‘Night Court’ to Fox’s ‘Accused’: How to Create a New Broadcast TV Hit in 2023

8 March 2023

Cable was still coming of age when the original “Night Court” aired on NBC in the ’80s and early ’90s. Forget Netflix; when Harry Anderson first sat behind the gavel as Judge Harry Stone, Napster founder Sean Parker had just turned 4. This “Night Court”  starring Melissa Rauch as Judge Abby Stone exists in another century, but it may as well be another world.

However, showrunner Dan Rubin (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) knows he has an advantage other freshmen do not. “It’s great if you have that name recognition,” he told IndieWire.

This is not the heyday of broadcast TV, but there’s always room for a hit like Fox’s “Accused,” NBC’s “Night Court,” and CBS’ “Fire Country.” The path to making it from idea to air is both similar and different. These days, we have summer originals, straight-to-series orders, smaller episode counts; a midseason premiere is no longer a sign of desperation. Today’s pilot process is less centralized than in olden times, but the general rollout remains: Introduce new shows at May’s upfronts, debut them in the fall.

Beyond the name and the iconic set, Rubin’s “Night Court” also enjoys what he called an “old-school network push.” NBC gave the new “Night Court” the full billboard and bus-ad treatment. It’s also booked the show’s recognizable TV stars, Rauch (“The Big Bang Theory”) and the returning John Larroquette, on every talk show that will take them.

It’s working. “Night Court” launched to 7.4 million total viewers on January 17, marking the largest comedy-series premiere on broadcast since ABC’s “The Conners” in 2018 (and NBC’s best since “Will & Grace” returned in 2017). Two weeks later, “Night Court” was renewed for a second season.

Compared to the Season 4 peak of the original “Night Court” that averaged 20.3 million viewers per episode, 7.4 million viewers sounds far less impressive — but streaming has fragmented audiences beyond all recognition and made appointment TV is almost extinct. There were 599 scripted series in 2022, and you can watch most of them anytime you want — if you can find them.

It wasn’t always that way, kids.

John Larroquette returned as Dan Fielding in NBC’s “Night Court” sequel series

Jordin Althaus/NBC/Warner Bros.

“I remember checking out everything,” the 41-year-old Rubin recalled of his decade-ago viewing habits. “Like, every new network show, whether I was super interested in it or not. You just kind of sampled.”

Nowadays? “You’ll hear about a show that people are talking about, and it’s not even on your radar,” he said.

Reviving I.P., as Rubin did, creates an automatic blip on the radar. There’s no guarantee for a hit, of course, but it’s a shortcut.

Other hacks: To attract the largest possible audience — and appease an in-person studio audience — go broad with the humor. Older Americans, the kind who might gravitate toward new “Night Court,” appreciate that. Rubin says his parents and their friends like his new show more than his long-running ABC sitcom “Happy Endings,” where the characters talked “too fast.”

Back when O.G. “Night Court” was cracking up all of our parents and their friends, Howard Gordon was a lowly writer on “Spenser: For Hire.” Lots of Fox hits and one “Homeland” later, Gordon found himself pitching his new anthology series “Accused” all over town. Even with Gordon’s résumé, it wasn’t easy.

“I was a little bit swimming upstream on this one,” Gordon, 61, told IndieWire.

Ultimately, it was that very longstanding Fox relationship that got “Accused” to the airwaves. Gordon said thanks to his friendship with FOX Entertainment president Michael Thorn and then-CEO Charlie Collier (now it’s Rob Wade), he got a closer look at Fox, where he did “24” and “The X-Files.”

That’s what friends are for: “Accused” is the highest-rated new series of the season among adults 18-49, traditionally the key demographic for advertisers on entertainment programming. “Fire Country” and “Night Court,” in that order, are the season’s most-watched new programs among viewers of any age.

Margo Martindale in the “Laura’s Story” episode of Fox anthology series “Accused”

Steve Wilkie/FOX

“Fire Country” showrunner Tia Napolitano, 38, had her own unique advantage to crafting a new broadcast-television hit: Other people, specifically Tony Phelan, Joan Rater, and star Max Thieriot, created it.

When Napolitano (“Cruel Summer”) came to the project, the “Fire Country” pilot was already done — and it was good. But she’s the one who steered “Fire Country” into its “soapier” turn. The result? It’s fire.

While Napolitano is not yet in a position to answer how to create a new TV series for broadcast, she’s an excellent example of how to board one. She joined Shondaland back in 2010 as a writer’s assistant on “Grey’s Anatomy.” From there was “Scandal” and “Station 19,” before making friends at CBS with “Council of Dads.” Beyond that, be invited to the right swanky pilot screening at the right time — like Napolitano says she was for “Fire Country.”

“Fire Country” follows a prisoner seeking a shortened sentence through a prison release firefighting program. The lessons Napolitano learned along the way include being “very, very specific.”

“Yes, there are a ton of fire shows out there, but they’re mostly in cities,” she told us. “They’re structure fires, they’re interior. We’re out in the wild, which feels fresh. And it’s specific to Northern California, and you really feel that.”

Stephanie Arcila as Gabriela Perez in CBS’ “Fire Country”

Sergei Bachlakov/CBS

In the end, the best way to make a hit TV show for broadcast television is to… try.

“Secretly, if you’re not trying for [a hit], something is wrong,” Gordon said. “You have to wonder ‘Why am I telling this story now?’ And: ‘Why will people, particularly in a time of glut… have the temerity to go, ‘This is worth my time’?”

“Accused” airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on Fox; “Night Court” airs Tuesdays at 8/7c; “Fire Country” airs Fridays at 9/8c on CBS.

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