Zexion: Topping our list for the fourth straight season, we want lesbian fanservice.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. A Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss is often one of these. In reality 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.
Ansem: I've told you, not until we need a cheap ratings boost.
Ansem: I've told you, not until we need a cheap ratings boost.
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Anime & Manga
- Excel Saga:
- Parodied and lampshaded, 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 screentime out of jealousy. "Outcome: unknown yet".
- The writers also introduce Ropponmatsu I and II for ratings.
- The Simpsons: In a story, Bart Bart switches places with a celebrity lookalike for the day because he'll be appearing on a "live" Krusty the Clown special the next day. Lisa tells the lookalike that Krusty just says its live to draw in ratings and actually tapes it the day before it airs, setting off the main dilemma to find Bart and switch the two back.
- Marvel has said in several interviews that Captain America being a HYDRA agent was this, including lying about Captain America being Not Brainwashed.
- Sometimes a network will create an event in which three or four sitcoms that regularly air back to back will have individual episodes involved in an umbrella overall plot. NBC did it twice to The Golden Girls, Empty Nest, and Nurses ... once with a "Full Moon" plot and once with a "Hurricane" plot. NBC did it to Mad About You, Friends and Madman Of The People with a plot about New York City being blacked out. ABC had the casts of Roseanne, Coach, The Drew Carey Show and Grace Under Fire meet cute in various ways in Las Vegas.
- 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. In the UK, Brookside did it. And Jennifer Aniston once kissed two women in a single episode of Friends.
- The Bill likes to kill its officers, and had a gay kiss. No, not at the same time.
- Done with the decision to divide the castaways by race. 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. Not, of course, that Seasonal Rot impacts its existence, or that of any Reality Show airing on CBS, in any adverse way.
- 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!
- 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.
- Star Trek:
- 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.
- Friends: The Ross/Rachel relationship in every fricking season finale. During the seasons their relationship is forgotten, but come the season finale Rachel realizes she loves Ross (again), or they get married or have a baby. Each time the writer luring viewers back next season with the possibility they might really get back together! (For the sixth, seventh...eight time). This stunt has actually caused questions over whether Ross, and particularly Rachel, are a Spotlight-Stealing Squad or not, and how central their "Official Couple" status is to the show. On one hand they don't have major character arcs — seperate or shared — within quite a few seasons, but both come front and centre during season finales and premieres. (So are naturally what the media, fan sites and advertising focuses on). Consequently, someone who knows the show but doesn't watch it, will automatically mention "Ross and Rachel". However actual fans will go at length about other characters and storylines that were more significant long-term, like Phoebe's development and Monica and Chandler's relationship. (Notably, the Chandler/Monica relationship, only have one season finale about them. Fans consider it one of the best-written and acted episodes, but it's less famous because it wasn't a cliffhanger. I.e not a Ratings Stunt).
- Law & Order:
- Two in-universe occurrences in Law & 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 & Order: LA did this twice in their only season: first adding Terrence 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.
- Case in point: Courteney Cox stars on Series/Cougartown, and Lisa Kudrow is guest starring as her dermatologist.
- And apparently Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry are due to appear too. It works both ways as Courtney guest starred on Matthew show Go On, which was described as a Monica and Chandler reunion.
- Plus Matt Leblanc and David Schwimmer appeared on Lisa's show Web Therapy, advertised as the Friends getting back together. Basically all of the Friends cast seem happy to pop by on-screen and help each other out.
- Heroes: 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.
- The first few episodes of Drew Careys Improvaganza features Wayne Brady as a guest performer.
- 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.
- 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. In 2015, he finally got around to doing so.
- 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 its 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, causing 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.
- The programming block The Splat (formerly known as The '90s Are All That) on TeenNick counts as this. The block consists of 90's Nick shows (since the rename, shows from the 80's and early 2000's have also been added to the lineup) and was inspired also by complaints on social networking sites from people who grew up in The '90s about Nick's current programming. Considering most of what TeenNick 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 The Tonight Show and Late Night.
- Charlie Chaplin's appearance at the 1972 Academy Awards ceremony was a publicity/ratings stunt. The producers were having trouble finding a sufficiently A-list name to give out the Best Picture Oscar that year; younger stars weren't interested, and older stars refused over the fact that one of the nominees in that category was the highly controversial A Clockwork Orange. (Ultimately, they went with Jack Nicholson, a key face of New Hollywood at the time but not yet a superstar.) The solution was to invite Chaplin — who hadn't visited the U.S. in 20 years — to attend and receive an Honorary Award after the reveal of the Best Picture winner (traditionally the show's finale). This gained the show huge amounts of publicity, while the presentation of the award proved to be one of the most famous moments in award show history.
- British current affairs program Question Time came under criticism for this when it invited the extremely right-wing and generally despised Nick Griffin onto the show. Result: that episode received three times the show's previous highest rating. It also caused a buttload of controversy. More information can be found here.
- An example crossing this trope over with Preview Piggybacking: Trailers for the season finale of The Voice, which were shown during such NBC network programming as the 2016 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and Hairspray Live!, claimed that viewers could catch a sneak peak of the then-upcoming Illumination film Sing during it. The ads turned out to be a lie, since the preview shown during the episode had no new clips in it, being comprised entirely of footage that had been shown in previous trailers, albeit with slight alterations.
- A similar thing to the above happened during Lady Gaga and The Muppets Holiday Spectacular. The official promotional announcement claimed that this special would feature a sneak peek of the Muppets' next big project, Muppets Most Wanted. This turned out to literally be the entire trailer for said film, save for one scene addition where Dominic insists that Kermit!Constantine sounds different because he has a cold.
- Odd Squad has been the victim of this with Odd Squad Saves the World, which was repeatedly hyped up as an hour-long action-packed movie event by PBS Kids, and the promo for it was styled as such. Fans were disappointed, however, when the "movie event" turned out to just be four 11-minute episodes played back-to-back to make up an hour. What was more, they hyped up the episode "Rise of the Hydraclops" (as well as the other three episodes) as some big event that would end the world, when really they were episodes in which the enemy was destroyed with a Weaksauce Weakness and never threatened the actual existence of the world, the boss had a surprise party, two agents duke it out X-Files-style, and an episode where dancing is the overall key to beating the enemy. It garnered about 30 million streams of the show and bumped up the ratings.
- This was the reason why All Japan Pro Wrestling brought in seven foot Pakistani karateka Raja Lion in to fight Giant Baba even though Lion knew nothing about wrestling.
- A most infamous ratings stunt was RoboCop arriving in WCW to save Sting from The Four Horsemen.
- Subverted by WWE SmackDown!, as Ho Yay Tag Team 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." Rico was outraged though and formed Three Minute Warning in revenge.
- This was how Bob Sapp's career wound down. People had figured out to beat him and suddenly he had found himself looking at medical bills. So he took to showing up in the most unusual of places and taking dives for money, which reached Self-Parody levels in Dramatic Dream Team.
- Kelly Kelly, the "vixen exhibitionist" who had promised to remove her clothing on the first episode on the derided SYFY ECW revival in a desperate attempt to attract a fan base adverse to the show's very idea around. When Kelly, predictably, failed to go all the way through and failed get over they kept trying by partnering her with two more exhibitionists, who together became the least popular part of an unpopular show.
- Vince McMahon shamelessly played straight and lampshaded a ratings stunt - the Million Dollar Mania from 2008, where all you had to do was know a password from the beginning of Raw, and hope you were the lucky contestant that gets called at random later to give said password. The calls were made live on the air by Vince himself, who would have segments littered throughout Raw devoted to these giveaways. This ratings stunt actually lost viewers, who were forced to sit through long segments filled with Vince fumbling with his phone, and having awkward conversations with lucky recipients, one of which received two dollars(?). It was aborted in a Vince injury angle after three weeks, but it did have one highlight - the very first person Vince called had a Rick Astley ringback tone. That's right, Vince McMahon got Rickrolled on national television.
- Parodied in the "Fantasy Files Explanation" episode of Captain Disillusion, where Cap analyses his viewer statistics and uses them to spice up the episode by adding 3D, green screen effects, and picking a subject to appeal only to his "core demographic" of young male viewers. He points out what a stupid approach this is at the end of the episode.
- Most recently, Fox went back to the hurricane plot to link episodes of Family Guy, The Cleveland Show and American Dad!.
- 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 realize they have to pull stunts week after week.
- The Simpsons:
- The episode "Large Marge" was obviously made to appeal to the more perverted viewers.
- The Season 26 premiere "Clown in the Dumps" was heavily hyped, claiming "a beloved Springfieldian dies." It turned out to be... Krusty's father, Rabbi Krustofski.
- The following season started with another one, "Every Man's Dream", which was supposedly about Homer and Marge breaking up. Not only had they done it before a couple times and have gotten back together by the end of the episode, this one turned out to be All Just a Dream, and that trope was then lampshaded to the point where the whole episode never happened.
- Family Guy has the infamous "Life of Brian" episode when the titular character gets Killed Off for Real and is replaced by another dog, Vinny. They had been announcing for some time that they were planning to kill off one of the Griffins, and most people thought it'd be either Chris or Meg (since they appear so little nowadays that their deaths wouldn't have any kind of impact in the show), so there was quite a shock when the killed character turned out to be not only one of the most prominent, but Seth MacFarlane's favorite character. They even replaced Brian with Vinny in the opening to hammer that yeah, Brian was gone for good and Vinny was here to stay . Except two weeks later, in the episode "Christmas Guy" Stewie managed to change the past and save Brian from death. After what appeared to be a major change in the status quo, things returned to normal, and the show continued as if Brian never died. The entire ratings stunt was heavily criticized by even loyal fans as shallow, desperate and manipulative attempt to gain controversy and attention. Because Family Guy episodes take over 6 months to animate, it was made clear bringing Brian back was the plan all along. Seth MacFarlane himself admitted "they would never kill of Brian for real".
- Any half-hour SpongeBob SquarePants episode promoted as a special isn't really a special. Nick just calls them specials to get higher ratings.
- "Best Day Ever" is widely considered to be the very first ratings trap SpongeBob pulled. It wasn't even a half-hour episode, it was a common 11-minute episode, and it got a 100-episode marathon prior to its airing anyways.
- "Truth or Square" is by far the most infamous ratings stunt SpongeBob ever pulled. The "TV Movie" was heavily hyped up as THE SpongeBob 10th anniversary special, and the previews showed Mr. Krabs about to reveal the secret formula and SpongeBob and Sandy getting married. When the episode finally aired, more than half of its runtime was devoted to Patchy the Pirate, and the SpongeBob segments were bland, with both the formula reveal and the marriage not actually happening, instead being part of unrelated flashbacks.
- SpongeBob SquarePants itself just seems to be a ratings stunt nowadays, as not only will Nickelodeon constantly air countless reruns of it daily, but even just regular new episodes get promoted like crazy with few hour marathons before it.
- There was also the 200th episode, "Goodbye, Krabby Patty?", which was advertised like a Grand Finale. Even rival children's channels thought it was going to be like this, scheduling marathons of their shows against the episode (then again, it was President's Day). However, this was not the case, as the problem in the episode was resolved rather quickly. Fans of the show considered it pretty good and said it was the best episode of any TV show that was done as a ratings stunt. The fact that Jon Hamm appeared in it and played a similar role to his one on Mad Men probably helped.
- Teen Titans Go! has "The Return of Slade". Despite the title, Slade never actually appears in the episode, and the remainder of the plot is basically a giant Take That, Critics! combined with an Author Tract.
- The 100th episode, "And The Award For Sound Design Goes To Rob", was heavily promoted and even had a marathon play before it's premiere. Promos claimed it to be a celebration of the show hitting 100 episodes and claimed that it would be like nothing the viewers had seen before. It actually turned out to be an exact copy of "Puppets, Whaaat?".
- A more recent example was "TV Knight", which could be considered the "Best Day Ever" of The New '10s. Its' premiere was part of a three-day marathon aired during Thanksgiving weekend, and advertised itself to be an episode focusing entirely on Batman, with none of the other characters included. The episode actually turned out to be about Batman visiting the Teen Titans (which had been done before in a few episodes), with a huge emphasis on Toilet Humor.
- The 200th episode of the show was advertised to be the end of the series, much like the SpongeBob example above. But it wasn't the end-the episode revealed that there was still more to come. Also, fans who usually hated the show really enjoyed the episode, which contained a few affectionate parodies of other shows and several shout-outs to both the fandom and the haters.
- PBS Kids has also taken up the slack recently. They broadcast hour-long specials as "movie events", like Wild Kratts and their Back in Creature Time special, and usually broadcast one once a month using the same term in their promos in order to bring more viewers in. In March 2017, their 24/7 channel debuted "PBS Kids Family Night", a two-hour block that airs a movie event and two half-hour-total episodes every Friday night, designed to get the family gathered together for a good fun movie. However, in the past they have made mock movie events, with one of the most notable examples being Odd Squad Saves the World (see the Live-Action TV folder for more on that).