The episode — NBC's most-watched Sunday entertainment telecast in a decade — landed a whopping 15 million viewers, becoming the No. 1 broadcast show of the week in same-day viewership in total viewers. It even edged out CBS's "The Big Bang Theory," which had 14.7 million. The rare victory shocked some in the industry, especially in today's brutally competitive TV space.
While NBC executives banked on the show doing well (it's hosted by Steve Harvey, who shares an executive producing credit with Ellen DeGeneres) the massive opening was unexpected — particularly for NBC, which struggles with programming on Sundays after "Sunday Night Football" wraps up.
"I'm always surprised when anything is a success these days, just because of the challenges of a very fragmented market — so it's great when anything works," said Paul Telegdy, the network's president of alternative and late-night programming. However, he added, "I wasn't really surprised that this was the show that worked on NBC."
For one thing, Telegdy said, "Little Big Shots" perfectly on-brand, fitting into their talent show line-up with programs like "The Voice" and "America's Got Talent," which appeal to a major swath of viewers in the heartland. Telegdy partially credits the success of the special debut preview episode, which aired after "The Voice" last Tuesday and attracted 12.8 million people, and went up to nearly 14.6 million with DVR viewing factored in.
He speculates that Sunday night is the perfect spot because not only is it the most-watched night of the week, it's also still the ideal time to air family-friendly shows — which used to be standard practice on broadcast TV. (Remember the ABC Sunday Movie of the Week?) Plus, the fraught political climate is only increasing the appetite for a light program while everyone gets ready for the start of another week.
"What is going on out there is so all-consuming and revolting, and I mean that," Telegdy said. "You spend your life absorbing what's going on out there at the moment … man oh man, come Sunday night, you just want to believe that there is something hopeful and fresh for the future. And kids just give you that."
Indeed, another piece of the puzzle is the adorable children featured on the show, which kicked off with Titus Ashby, the 4-year-old famous for making incredible trick basketball shots. Each episode, Harvey brings out the kids on stage one at a time for some light banter and to feature their skills. "You have cleaned it up," Harvey told Titus of his millions of YouTube videos.
"But I don't clean anything up!" Titus squeaked. "I only clean my room!"
Cue laughter from the crowd and major cheers as Titus scored shot after shot from a platform near the ceiling. Next was six-year-old spelling bee champ Akash Vukoti, who cracked up when Harvey couldn't even spell the word "connoisseur." The show also features acts including tap dancing twins, salsa dancers and a piano prodigy.
In Telegdy's opinion, Harvey's dynamic with the kids makes the show, and it's not as easy as it looks. "Steve is a revelation," Teledgy said, adding it's a pretty high-pressure situation to bring out a young child on stage in front of a big studio audience. "He is brilliant with these kids. What ends up being a few minutes on the show — it's brilliantly edited — can take 45 minutes to make them feel comfortable."
Harvey (whose career remains undeterred after the epic Miss Universe mix-up in December) pitched the show with DeGeneres on a conference call last May. They both have daytime talk shows distributed by NBC Universal, and DeGeneres is known for frequently featuring talented youngsters. Telegdy bought the show in the room, ordering eight episodes. Obviously, NBC renewed the show for a second season this week as soon as executives saw the numbers from Sunday.
Meanwhile, NBC hopes to see the ratings trend continue this Sunday, banking on the show's "relentless positivity." Telegdy said even some of his colleagues in the competitive industry sent him emails saying it's just nice to see anything new break out these days. Even though Telegdy acknowledges the prestige dramas and primetime soaps get a lot of attention Sunday nights, and deservedly so, there's still "a huge additional available audience" eager for G-rated programs.
"This is a huge country. I can tell you, in the NBC heartland…with [parents] sitting on the couch saying, 'Hey kids, let's get ready for school next week,' no one's watching the zombie show or 'Game of Thrones,'" he said. "That's not family viewing."
"Some shows come along at the perfect time and perfect place," he added. "And 'Little Big Shots' is an example of that."