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. 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.
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.
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.
Which got mocked in Ansem Retort: Ansem won't give into Zexion's demands for more lesbians on the show cause he's saving that for when they need a cheap ratings boost.
Subverted by WWE SmackDown!, as Ho Yay characters 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."
Survivor did this one 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.
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!
On the night that ITV was due to open in 1955, The BBC killed off one of the lead characters in its RadioSoap OperaThe Archers (this was of course at a time when radio could compete for ratings with television). ITV naturally cried foul.
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.
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).
The writers also introduce Ropponmatsu I and II for ratings.
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 Terrance 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.
Done. Courteney Cox stars on 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.
Jeopardy! has 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.
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 it's 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 '90s Are All That on Tee Nick counts as this. The block consists of 90's Nick shows and was inspired also by complaints on social networking sites from people who grew up in The Nineties 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 Leno, Fallon, Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel.
In a comic book 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.
Any half-hour Sponge Bob Square Pants episode promoted as a special isn't really a special. Nick just calls them specials to get higher ratings.
Sponge Bob Square Pantsitself 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.
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.