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Sleeper Hit

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"At that time, no one knew that this small work called Gundam was to become a legendary anime, shaking the very foundation of Japan."

A sleeper hit is a work that becomes an unexpected success upon its release, usually through word of mouth. Either the work slipped under the fandom and critics' radar during production, it was dismissed as outright crap based just on previews, or the company/publisher didn't have much faith in it and neglected its promotion, yet it managed to get sizable box offices or sales. It might make an impact on the fandom collective and become a Cult Classic, or be a matter of Quality by Popular Vote and be forgotten quickly: the point being, it exceeded expectations.

It may start a Cash-Cow Franchise, spawn cases of Follow the Leader, or even start a whole new genre.

A Super-Trope to And You Thought It Would Fail, where the work is actively derided before release and still ends up being a hit. Compare to Colbert Bump, where a work/creator/event becomes popular upon being featured or referenced elsewhere, and Ensemble Dark Horse, when a character in a show/film/etc. becomes unexpectedly popular. If it takes longer than just its initial release to become popular, then it has been Vindicated by History instead. Contrast Acclaimed Flop, where a work flops in terms of box office or ratings but does well with critics and audiences, and Critic-Proof, in which a popular blockbuster/franchise gets a lot of bad publicity, despite being a box office hit.

Example subpages:

Other examples:

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    Card Games 
  • Magic: The Gathering was shopped around for a while until a little company called Wizards of the Coast, whose only call to fame was being the holder of the Ars Magica RPG franchise, decided to give it a go. Amusingly, Magic itself is known to have Sleeper Hit cards.

    Comic Books 
  • Matt Fraction and David Aja's Hawkeye (2012) was not a series with exceptional hype around it before release, only mild intrigue for its premise — taking a well-known, but not quite spotlight-stealing Avenger, focusing on his everyday life when he's not being a superhero, taking cues from quirky indie movies and featuring a minimalist, stylized art-style far removed from the more realistic "house style" seen throughout Marvel. Then it was released to massive acclaim, and rapid word-of-mouth quickly turned the 22-issue series into a smash success, arguably surpassing The Avengers (2012) as leaving the biggest impact on Clint Barton's character (greatly inspiring much of the eventual live-action TV series in 2021), and becoming one of the definitive works of Marvel's New Tens.
  • During the Marvel NOW! (2016) era, one of the titles released was The Unstoppable Wasp. However, the title was caught up in Marvel's Audience-Alienating Era and was cancelled after seven issues. However, the title had strong and consistent sales in the trade paperback that the title was revived as part of 2018's Marvel: A Fresh Start imitative.
  • Silk launched right before Marvel were planning the above-mentioned All New revamp, starring a controversial Spider-Man character who was considered The Scrappy and a Creator's Pet at best. Despite a lukewarm amount of hype before release, the series ended up being surprisingly really good, succeeding in allowing Silk to be Rescued from the Scrappy Heap and connecting to audiences thanks to the titular character's battle with anxiety. It became a modest seller (by no means one of their highest-selling books, but enough that it got to stay on as part of the All-New revamp, and maintained decent sales all throughout its run), and by the time it ended, was considered one of Marvel's best Spider-Man-related books being released at the time.
  • Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird decided to make a one-shot based on a dumb idea that made them laugh during a night brainstorming, drinking beer and watching bad TV. As Self-Deprecation, the self-published comic was hailed as being from "Mirage Studios", given there was no actual company. And yet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sold out its 3,275 copies, and the successful reprints led the duo to make an ongoing. A few years later, a toy line (rejected by big companies) and a cartoon adaptation broke the Turtles into the mainstream, and the rest is history.
  • The Superior Foes of Spider-Man was originally only planned for a 12-issue miniseries, but the book proved so unexpectedly popular and well-received that Marvel extended it. Several solicitations for the series lampshaded this, one of which even used the term Sleeper Hit.
  • X-Men '92 was a 5-issue mini-series designed for Secret Wars. However, unlike Old Man Logan, which was already popular and planning to become a full-fledged series in the All-New, All-Different Marvel lineup, this one took everyone by surprise, leading to them approving of an ongoing in 2016.
  • Marvel's Micronauts series (1979-1986) was originally just one of several toy based properties that Marvel just happened to have cheaply purchased the rights to. The toys initially had no backstory but thanks to Bill Mantlo's extensive worldbuilding, the popularity of the comic outlived the toyline by almost seven years,even in the later years when the toy based aspects of the comic were mimimizednote . Aspects of the Microverse as well as the non toy based main and supporting characters (some simply renamed for licensing purposes), are still part of the Marvel universe to this day.

    Comic Strips 
  • Calvin and Hobbes debuted without much fanfare in 1985 in 35 newspapers, OK for a new strip in that era but not a phenomenal number. Its rather quirky premise probably made it a tough sell at first. But word of mouth was strong, and by its one-year anniversary the number of subscribing newspapers had grown to over 250, and in the spring of 1987 the first book collection became a runaway best-seller.
  • Pearls Before Swine was this, according to Stephan Pastis. The sales staff at United Features Syndicate didn't think the strip was going to sell, so it was placed online-only on the syndicate's website for about a year (while common today, this was unheard of back when the strip began). What got it launched in newspapers was that Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, was a fan of the strip and endorsed it in his newsletter. The readership increased as a result, and with Adams' support, the sales staff now had enough clout to get it sold to newspapers. It has since appeared in over 750 newspapers, has over a dozen book collections, and was even turned into an animated web series.

  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll was an unknown at the time, and most readers bought it because illustrator John Tenniel was a big draw; his Awesome Art was already well known. But it because a smash hit with kids.
  • Terry Pratchett's first few Discworld books were small, fantasy parodies. Now, the Discworld series is one of the biggest and most popular pieces of modern fantasy literature.
  • The EarthCent Ambassador ebooks started out as a standalone story, Date Night on Union Station. Author E.M. Foner originally wrote it while taking a break from a more conventional sci-fi series, but its unexpected popularity on Kindle led to him getting bombarded with requests for sequels.
  • Everyday Saints is a book written by a Christian bishop about his conversion, the monasteries he lived in and the ascetics who influenced his religious life. Nobody at all expected it to be a success among anyone but devoted churchgoers. Instead, it became wildly popular, topped the 2011 bestseller list in Russia, had to be reprinted six times within a year from the first publication, and was translated into over a dozen languages.
  • Harry Potter is among the most familiar examples. J. K. Rowling has said that, prior to the publication of the first book, her greatest hope for her career was that she would be able to make it as a part-time writer, fully expecting that she would never be able to support herself on writing alone. The first book was rejected by several publishers, being considered too long for a kids' book. Finally, Rowling's agent gave it to his eight-year-old daughter, only to find she devoured it and couldn't wait to read more. It was only then anyone began thinking it ever had a chance. Once finally published, it got significant attention, which exploded exponentially after the release of the third book.
  • House of Leaves is a chaotic ball of footnotes, faux-academic writing, unusual formatting, and a whole lot of nightmare-stuff. The writer, Mark Z. Danielewski, spent ten years writing the haunted house story the wake of his father's death. Pieces of the book were published online, and a proper book was released in 2000. Over time, word of mouth (quite a lot of it stemming from This Very Wiki) turned the novel into a juggernaut of horror and a fine example of experimental fiction, pleasing genre writers like Stephen King and literary writers like Brett Easton Ellis alike.
  • Tom Clancy really struggled to get The Hunt for Red October published, getting no interest from traditional publishers. He finally tried the Naval Institute Press, for whom he had previously written a number of nonfiction articles, and they agreed to print it as their first-ever foray into fiction. The novel became a surprise bestseller after President Ronald Reagan read it and loved it.
  • Peter Benchley didn't expect anything out of Jaws, saying "It was a first novel, and nobody reads first novels. It was a first novel about a fish, so who cares?" Yet the publisher's efforts made it a million seller by the time an even more successful movie adaptation came out.
  • The Lord of the Rings was expected to lose money, but was approved for publication anyway. The final decision came by telegram: "If you believe it is a work of genius then you may lose a thousand pounds."
  • Older Than Radio: The Penny Dreadful novels were cheap serials written in the 19th century by amateur authors on second-rate paper, intended for children and the working class, who couldn't afford the more expensive books by more popular authors.note  While most Penny Dreadfuls were indeed, not very good, some have become cultural icons, like Varney the Vampire and The String of Pearls, the first known version of the Sweeney Todd story.
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians started out as this because of Harry Potter, which itself was a sleeper hit in its first years of publication. While the Percy Jackson books are wildly popular now, The Lightning Thief came out the same year as the sixth Harry Potter book, which vastly over shadowed almost all other young adult fiction releases that same year. Because of the release and success of Harry Potter, and the somewhat similar premises of the two series (young boy finds out he has cool powers and goes to a place where others are like him), The Lightning Thief was cast aside as another young adult fiction trying to play off of Harry Potter's success. Word of mouth quickly spread about the Percy Jackson series after the second book came out, because readers started to realize that the two series had less in common than people initially assumed, and Percy Jackson is now one of the top-selling series in the country.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Banshee could qualify; it began to almost no fanfare whatsoever, but with each passing season the ratings snowballed, ultimately becoming the most-watched original show on Cinemax (surpassing the much more advertised, more "prestigious" The Knick).
  • Barney & Friends was originally a Direct to Video series called "Barney & The Backyard Gang." Initial sales of the first three "Backyard Gang" videos were middling at best and wouldn't have taken off if it weren't for creator Sheryl Leach's grass-roots marketing efforts which included giving free Barney videos to preschools, to the point of listing stores where the videos were sold. By 1991, the initial video series was selling 500,000 copies. That said, it would have stayed a direct to video series if not for a father who rented one of the Barney videos for his young daughter — he happened to work at Connecticut Public Television, the state's PBS affiliate. They happened upon the video and decided to make a TV series out of it. PBS itself had little faith in a hokey little direct-to-video series made in Texas and produced by a bunch of mothers succeeding on TV, and wanted to cancel it after one season, but the surprising popularity among toddlers led to it running on TV for nearly 20 years (not to mention providing Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, among others, with some early child work).
  • The Bear premiered on Hulu in the summer of 2022 with little fanfare and could've easily become lost in the shuffle of shows coming out around that time, but positive word-of-mouth made it become an unexpected smash hit and one of the most popular and acclaimed new shows of the year, eventually going on to receive much awards attention and a quickly-greenlit second season that premiered the next summer to even more acclaim.
  • The Big Bang Theory started off with okay ratings consistent enough to keep it on and it survived the 2007 writers strike virtually unscathed in writing quality (largely due to its episodic nature), unlike a lot of other shows which made TBBT's modest success stand out more. Ratings continued to grow as the fanbase increased and by its fifth season, due to a record breaking syndication deal that exposed it to wider audiences, it is the highest rated scripted show on television and huge internationally as well.
  • Hard to believe now, but Breaking Bad started off like this. Word of mouth, Netflix, and Twitter helped the ratings increase tremendously by the last season, breaking its own ratings record five times and ending with one of the most watched finales in the history of cable television.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer had so little expected of it, with a very young showrunner whose experience mostly lay in being a staff-writer and script doctor for moderately successful shows, and a cast whose most senior member was mainly known for his work in British theatre and occasional TV show episodes, that it was only commissioned for thirteen episodes. It promptly kicked on and became a pop culture phenomenon, running for seven seasons and spawning a successful spinoff in Angel, a series of comic continuations, and an enduring influence on genre television, including that other television Sleeper Hit of the 21st century, Doctor Who.
  • Charmed was not expected to be a great hit. Producers didn't warm to the witchcraft concept until Constance M. Burge made the leads sisters — feeling that the family values would at least get a few people watching. The show was female-led and didn't have any major stars in it. Shannen Doherty's last project of note was Beverly Hills, 90210 four years previously, and she had been doing made-for-TV movies since. Alyssa Milano meanwhile was a Former Child Star who had only just regained traction through Melrose Place, while Holly Marie Combs was virtually unknown. The first episode drew 7 million viewers and the first season kept a 10 million viewer average, with the pilot actually setting a record for the WB's highest ratings at that point. The network only had the budget to give one of their shows the big splashy advertising campaign, and they opted to do so with Teen Drama Felicity, making Charmed's unexpected popularity even more poignant. Despite Doherty leaving at the end of the third season, it lasted for eight seasons in total. In fact, the WB constantly moved the timeslot around, but the final seasons were still drawing five million viewers on average.
  • When Doctor Who was commissioned in 1963, it was intended to be basically low-budgeted filler content for kids. Confidence in the series was so low the BBC actually cancelled it months before the first episode aired, instructing the series to end after its 13th episode (after originally agreeing to literally dozens more). The show was Uncancelled after a few weeks and production was slated to continue past episode 13, which was a good thing given that, after a modest start, episode 5 introduced the Daleks and the show's popularity took off like a rocket, becoming a globally renowned pop-culture juggernaut that has, 16 year hiatus aside (a hiatus that was still filled by a TV Movie and innumerable Expanded Universe materials), run near constantly for over half century.
    • The Doctor Who revival in 2005 was also an example of this. By the turn of the millennium, Doctor Who as a franchise was considered as good as dead; it had been cancelled in 1989 after several years of rapidly-declining ratings, the only new material (outside of the expanded universe) since then was an American telemovie in 1996 that bombed in the states, and its fandom had been reduced to a devoted cult following at best. When the revival was announced, the general public never expected it to last more than a few years and there were jokes from mainstream press about it winding up as filler for PBS telethons. However, once the show's first televised episode in 16 years finally hit British airwaves, it was a ratings success, gluing nearly 11 million people to their TV screens, motivating the BBC to greenlight a second season after just four days, and establishing to the world that Doctor Who was back in business.
  • Despite Donkey Hodie being a Network Redheaded Stepchild (a puppet show in the midst of cartoons), it managed to be a huge hit. The show generated 32.6 million streams, the most for any PBS Kids series launch since Ready Jet Go!. On-air, the series posted the highest Kids 2-8 ratings and reach of any PBS Kids series during its premiere week, reaching 2.7 million TV viewers. It even managed to snag a toy license within six months. In fact, the show's uniqueness might have been why the show got high viewership.
  • The Eternal Love was a low-budget web series starring unknown actors, so no one had high expectations for it and everyone was amazed when it became a hit. It proved to be popular enough to get two sequels.
  • Firefly turned out to be Too Good to Last, cancelled even before its lone season ended. And then the DVD set sold so well that Universal was convinced to make a movie out of it.
  • The Five on News Networks Fox News Channel]] was originally intended to be a temporary program meant to fill in the mid-afternoon gap left by Glenn Beck's departure from the network. Viewers ended up really liking the interaction among the panelists, however, so the show was kept. It ended up exceeding the popularity of Beck's show and got the second-best ratings of any Fox News show after The O Reilly Factor.
  • Go Princess Go was made in only seventy days on a shoestring budget (20 million yuan, equivalent to 3 million US dollars), without time or money to make proper props or costumes, and starring amateur actors. To everyone's amazement it became very successful, making over 41 million yuan and gaining 2.6 billion views.
  • The Great British Bake Off started in 2010 as a low-key summer filler show with no significant publicity, on the BBC's secondary channel. Word of mouth made it a hit; it nearly doubled its ratings over the course of its first short run, and by 2013 it was the highest-rating show on BBC Two for over twenty years and beating other channels' ratings bankers like EastEnders and The X Factor. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking the show had reached its ceiling at that point, but then it transferred to the flagship channel, BBC One, and got even bigger. In 2015 it was the highest rating show on British television outside of the Christmas period. And of course it's been exported around the world too.
  • NCIS parent series JAG was also, albeit to a lesser extent, a sleeper hit which hardly received any press coverage until the fourth season when it entered the top 15.
  • The Late Late Show had been a cult hit under its previous host Craig Ferguson (aided by his unique humor and charm), but James Corden's incarnation all but surpassed it in mainstream popularity thanks to the viral popularity of his "Carpool Karaoke" segments.
  • In general, this tends to happen to minority-led network shows that become hits, perhaps because people usually expect them to fall into the Minority Show Ghetto. For example, Empire, How to Get Away with Murder, and Scandal are huge hits that star African-American leads, while black•ish and Fresh Off the Boat proved to be surprise comedy hits as well. However, read any review for these shows, especially Empire, and critics will be shocked at how high the ratings were.
  • NCIS was largely ignored as simply another CBS crime procedural early in its run and had fairly middling ratings. It entered the top 10 in 2008 and has its own spinoffs NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans. For the 2012-2013 season, it was the number one scripted drama on network television. Also a very rare example of a show getting more popular with age; it has broken its record for single-episode viewership in each of its 9 seasons, with "Shiva" as the most watched.
  • Tends to happen to any Netflix original series. Each new show is given modest promotion before word-of-mouth does the rest. Stranger Things deserves special mention, as it became wildly popular enough to get its own Super Bowl commercial, a rarity for any Netflix original.
  • The Noddy Shop was not expected to make a significant impact in North America, as some elements of the Noddy's Toyland Adventures stories it framed were controversial (such as the relationship between Noddy and Big Earsnote ), and some people in its native United Kingdom felt that the framing device itself was useless. However, children loved both the stories in both the shop and Toyland, and it got ratings on par with Sesame Street in its first few weeks alone, leading to a long run on both PBS Kids and TVOntario.
  • No one could have expected the out of nowhere success of Our Flag Means Death. Receiving very little marketing from HBO Max and a very unusual release schedule, it seemed the network didn't have much faith in the series. Suffice to say it was a surprise when through 99% word of mouth, the quirky gay pirate romantic comedy became not only the most demanded show on HBO Max, it became the biggest new hit of the entire year.
  • Power Rangers fit this. Haim Saban spent the better part of a decade looking for a network, be it broadcast or cable, to accept his concept of an Transatlantic Equivalent of Super Sentai. No one would accept until Margaret Loesch, then head of the Fox Kids Network (and familiar with the source, having been with Marvel when the Sentai people took a shot at their characters) gave him the go-ahead. A last minute change in management at Fox left Loesch with a new boss who was less than thrilled with the idea and wanted the show cancelled before airing even one episode. Luckily, Loesch's faith paid off and she was able to convince her boss to give it a chance saying she had a backup if it flopped. It ended up being a smash hit the likes of which had not been seen since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Loesch herself, along with Stan Lee, was trying to do essentially the same thing with Super Sentai when she was at Marvel. So she jumped at the chance to bring it to the air.
  • The first Puppy Bowl was a quick No-Hoper Repeat show Animal Planet threw together to air during the Super Bowl. To everyone's surprise it gave Animal Planet some of its highest ratings ever and has steadily grown in popularity, even spawning its own imitator, Hallmark Channel's Kitty Bowl. Now, as of 2019, they've done their fifteenth Puppy Bowl, have a number of pregame specials regarding current and past Puppy Bowls (including an actual pregame show, natch), and even created another bowl, the Dog Bowl, which is the Puppy Bowl with older dogs.
  • The Queen's Gambit could be just another Netflix miniseries, about the not exactly crowd-pleasing game of chess. It became one of the platform's biggest hits of the year, topping the streaming charts for more than a month.
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch was a show that ABC had very little faith in, favouring Clueless as their flagship one. While Melissa Joan Hart had achieved Teen Idol status with her previous sitcom, the fact that it was female-led and had fantasy themes meant they weren't sure who would watch it beyond young children or adults nostalgic for the likes of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. It ended up becoming a hit, lasting for seven seasons, and still enjoys a strong fan base several years later.
  • Schitt's Creek was popular enough in its native Canada, but in the USA critics dismissed it as an Arrested Development knockoff and it attracted few viewers on the new and somewhat obscure Pop Channel. However, strong word of mouth and the show becoming available on Netflix led it to become a hit in the fourth season.
  • Sesame Street was originally made to prep the kids of low-income families for school, and as a result it had very low ratings early on. After word of mouth spread about how beneficial the show was not only to poor families, but to all children regardless of their wealth, along with the show's Parental Bonuses attracting a Periphery Demographic, the ratings skyrocketed. It beat Captain Kangaroo (where several members of Sesame Street's initial creative team had been hired from) as the most popular show for preschoolers on TV, and it's now a certified Long Runner Cash-Cow Franchise.
  • Squid Game was a South Korean Deadly Game show hardly promoted by Netflix outside of Asia at first. One month later, it was the platform's most watched debut ever, with over 111 million viewers worldwide.
  • When Apple TV+ was approaching its launch, most of the hype for its original programming went towards The Morning Show with it getting the bulk of advertising and media attention, as well as having a massive price tag ($15 million an episode) and several big-name lead actors (Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carell, and Reese Witherspoon). After the show premiered, the general sentiment towards it was So Okay, It's Average. Instead, most of the expected acclaim would go towards fellow Apple TV Plus original Ted Lasso, thanks to Word Of Mouth praising it for expertly turning what was a series of joke commercials into a well written dramedy with lead actor Jason Sudeikis churning out what has widely been hailed as the best acting performance of his career. The show and Sudeikis proceeded to win several high profile awards and, as a result, the service pivoted towards marketing the latter show as its flagship program.
  • Teletubbies was just expected to be another British children's series that would only be remembered by those who lived there and not get worldwide exposure. There were also parents who were furious that it replaced the long-running BBC show Playdays, as well as concerns about the show targeting a very young demographic. However, the colorful characters, fun stories and intriguing concepts of the show lured in not just the target demographic, but a Periphery Demographic of teenagers and adults. The instant success lead to Teletubbies being the hottest toys that Christmas and the theme song selling over a million copies. It also kickstarted the trend of creating television shows meant for babies.
  • The Thick of It was given a limited budget and aired on the niche BBC Four channel, but it became a cult hit that turned Peter Capaldi into a star. Season 4 ended up getting a Channel Hop to BBC Two as a result. It also inspired a similarly successful American version.
  • CBS threw The Waltons on the air solely to answer those who were criticizing the network's "rural purge" in the early '70s, its focus on more urban-focused, boundary-pushing programming at the expense of shows set in Flyover Country. It was expected to die a quick death against the ABC hit The Mod Squad, but instead ran for nine seasons and is now remembered as the "sole survivor" of the rural purge.
  • The American version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? was specifically intended by ABC as a temporary filler show — the show went up against Friends and Survivor, both of which were (at the time) ratings juggernauts which ABC couldn't hope to successfully go against (and several attempts, such as Vengeance Unlimited, proved that point). But Whose Line ended up getting way more viewers than expected (mostly from people disillusioned with "popular" TV), and, given the show's low production costs, ABC was still able to make a profit on it and thus didn't have any reason to take it off the air. Whose Line ultimately became a Cult Classic that lasted for five seasons on ABC proper—not bad for a show the network never intended to renew.
  • Of the Day One original productions of Disney+, the lighthearted Edutainment series The World According to Jeff Goldblum was the most-hyped of the unscripted/nonfiction productions because of the presence of the eccentric actor, who became the "face" of the National Geographic brand on the service and did plenty of morning/talk show appearances to promote it. Still, it saw far less advertising (especially offline) than Killer App The Mandalorian and the service's extensive back catalog of Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars movies and shows, all of which had more obvious appeal to kids/families. While reviews were mostly favorable, even positive notices warned that it wouldn't appeal to viewers who weren't Goldblum fans... but by the time the first season ended it quietly became the service's third original production to be renewed for a second season (after The Mandalorian and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series).
  • The X-Files was a classic example. When Chris Carter pitched the idea to Fox, it was initially rejected. When he fleshed it out and pitched it again a few weeks later, they reluctantly took it on. They were unsure about the idea of having a show centered around the paranormal and were not happy with the casting; they wanted someone more established and traditionally attractive to play Scully. Gillian Anderson was a theater actress but mentioned later that The X-Files pilot was only her second time in front of the camera. Right away it was given the Friday Night Death Slot with the network hoping it would get residual audience from The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.... only to consistently draw more viewers than that and be renewed for a second season. And a third. And a fourth, where it finally got a better date on Sundays, even serving as a Super Bowl lead-out. Also helping was the Internet's increasingly popularity, with The New York Times reported the show was likely one of the first shows to see audience growth influenced by the Internet, having its own forums, discussion groups, fan pages and fanfiction far before it became commonplace to do so with a show. By Season 6, The X-Files was Fox's highest-rated show. Its popularity led to Executive Meddling coupled with The Chris Carter Effect and spelled the show's downfall, with the series' ninth and final season (until a short revival in The New '10s) being the lowest-rated overall. However, the show went on to inspire and influence other shows of the time and subsequent shows (many cult classics in their own right), including Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Torchwood, Eleventh Hour, Alias, Bones, and most notably Fringe, which has a similar blend of Monster of the Week and Myth Arc episodes.

  • Podcasts are usually written off as niche topics and rarely break-out as cultural phenomena. But in 2013, Welcome to Night Vale managed to break the mold thanks to vocal support from Tumblr and various other sources. Eventually, it reached #1 on iTunes and the live crossover with Thrilling Adventure Hour ranked higher than Beyoncé for about a day.

  • RENT also became a surprisingly huge success, largely due to the sudden death of its composer/author just before it opened on Broadway.
  • Shuffle Along, like many lesser Broadway musicals of the early 1920s, was a vaudeville sketch expanded into an evening-length show. The production featured an all-black cast of unknowns in borrowed costumes, and barely managed to open in New York at a small, out-of-the-way theater in May 1921, late in the theatrical season. It unexpectedly won critical praise and became the eleventh longest running musical of the decade.

    Theme Parks 
  • Disney Theme Parks sometimes get these — attractions that weren't the focus of giant marketing campaigns, but then the word-of-mouth kicked in.
    • Voyage of the Little Mermaid, a multimedia live show, officially opened in a minuscule theater at Disney's Hollywood Studios in January 1992 — right after the Christmas rush.
    • How popular is Beauty and the Beast — Live on Stage at the Studios? It opened the same day the movie opened in wide release in 1991, and given the previous tendency of new release tie-in shows to last until the next big release came along, it should have lasted about a year. And has been credited for inspiring the company to adapt the show into a full-fledged Broadway musical in 1994!
    • The 3-D movie Honey, I Shrunk the Audience was, according to The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, "launched with very little fanfare" at Epcot in 1994; it came along mainly because Captain EO had run its course and something fresh was in order. Well, that guide mentioned the "little fanfare" part by way of explaining that it swiftly became the hottest attraction in a park devoted mainly to Edutainment, and managed to run until 2010. It's also the only 3D movie besides Captain EO to play in more than three Disney parks, since it was exported to Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo Disneyland — and even though Tokyo didn't get it until 1998, they were rewarded for their wait with a unique preshow. Even The Simpsons made a joke about its tactile special effects in "Special Edna" — Homer and Bart get Covered in Gunge by Honey, I Sprayed Goo on the Audience — and Gigabyte, the python that menaces the shrunken crowd, was incorporated into Ridley Pearson's third Kingdom Keepers novel.
    • Turtle Talk with Crush, an interactive Finding Nemo-based show, became this as part of Disney's California Adventure's animation exhibit. It was subsequently ported over to Epcot as a standalone show and repeated its success, and the technology used for it has since become the basis for other attractions, such as Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor.
  • Universal Parks & Resorts:
    • The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash largely flew under the radar while it was being built, as an attraction based on The Secret Life of Pets didn't appeal to the hardcore theme park fans who are largely indifferent at best to the works of Illumination Entertainment making their way into the Universal Studios parks. When Off the Leash opened however, it became a surprise hit within that crowd for its charming old-school dark ride design philosophy, and it very quickly became one of Universal Studios Hollywood's most acclaimed and popular attractions. It is now common to see calls for this ride to be exported to other parks as well.

  • Many people bashed Mixels before they were released, saying their designs were silly and the shorts were unneeded. However, it turned out that the sets were cheap for their piece-to-price ratio, contained the new balljoint mechanism, and contained rare pieces in hard-to-find colors. Sales soon shot up, and many people that bought them for their parts have admitted to caving in and making the Mixels instead and finding them appealing.
  • While Monster High had fans since it began, many thought the appearance of the dolls and the premise were too bizarre for a toy line aimed at young girls. It became one of Mattel's best selling toy franchises ever note .
  • Many believed that DC Super Hero Girls would bomb among the target audience since making a franchise out of the female heroines from a company with works mainly aimed at a male audience didn't sound profitable. However, thanks to various shows about superheroes becoming popular at the time, and the franchise being praised for having good girl role models compared to similar doll lines, DC SuperHero Girls became one of the top 5 best-selling girls' brands in the United States, and caused other companies to try to create similar girl franchises based off properties aimed at boys, most notably Star Wars: Forces of Destiny.
  • When LOL Surprise dolls came out, most just dissmissed them as another cash grab. They became one of the biggest selling doll lines in years, entire stores sold out of them in mere hours, and they helped MGA Entertainment out of a slump.

    Visual Novels 
  • As shocking as it may sound, Higurashi: When They Cry was actually not that well known when it first came out. Word of God says that it wasn't until Meakashi-hen that the series started to garner wide spread attention. The series would eventually become known as one of the flag ships of Japanese Horror and of the visual novel medium.
  • Mystic Messenger became far more popular than its developer Cheritz expected; while their previous two English releases were relatively well-received by the otome gaming community, Mystic Messenger ended up vastly outstripping the two of them in popularity combined and even getting publicity outside of the niche otome community as it became a number of players' introduction to the otome genre.
  • Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, a Visual Novel for the Nintendo DS, was released in North America to little fanfare — there was basically no advertising and retailers had to specifically request copies of the game to stock. It then received several near-perfect scores from major reviewers, and good word-of-mouth led to so many sales that the distributors had to re-print the game. The sequel, Virtue's Last Reward, was released on the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita to similar critical acclaim.

    Web Animation 
  • Cocomelon started as a channel called ThatsMEOnTV that uploaded educational videos. After two rebrands, it began producing original animated videos featuring a set cast of characters. As the channel's last two incarnations were rather obscure, it was not expected to do well. Cocomelon is now the third most-subscribed to YouTube channel in the world, and the song "Bath Song" is the fourth most-watched YouTube video of all time. Additionally, since Cocomelon first became available on Netflix, it has almost never left the network's daily posted list of top 10 shows/movies watched in the United States. Though it has never once topped the list, it has almost always been at least somewhere on it, and has risen at least as high as fourth. This changed once Netflix made changes to how the top 10 are ranked, though the series still surfaces in the top 10 from time to time.
  • hololive spent most of 2017 to 2019 in the relative obscurity of a small Japanese fanbase. When the COVID-19 Pandemic happened in early 2020, the combination of clipped stream highlights skyrocketing through the YouTube algorithm and the lockdowns meaning billions of people were now staying inside, saw Hololive's streamers surge in popularity in 2020. The company used the success of the 4th & 5th generation of Japanese speaking talent as a springboard for the start of its English speaking branch in late 2020, with one, Gawr Gura rapidly reaching 3.5 million subscribers, making her the highest subbed VTuber ever.
  • The creators of The Most Popular Girls in School didn't think that anybody would even watch their videos. And then, Episode 1 got over a hundred-thousand views in a week.
  • Pinkfong was a little-known Korean education company that produced videos, including one of the popular camp song Baby Shark. Nobody expected said video to become the most watched YouTube video of all time and for said song to become a Cash-Cow Franchise, spawning toys, t-shirts and a Nickelodeon show.
  • Similar to Baby Shark, Potty Monkey originally started as a little-known toy by a company who made bedwetting alarms and wasn't very successful at first, having very few purchasers in its first decade of sales. It wasn't until a web cartoon based on the toy was published in 2018 that the toy really took off and became popular with kids, with said video reaching two million views in the span of a year.
  • Red vs. Blue was meant to be just a short series Burnie Burns and his friends did for fun. Yet the videos gathered thousands and thousands of views bordering on Demand Overload, so everyone quit their day jobs, founded the still thriving Rooster Teeth, and Red vs. Blue has been running continuously since 2003.
  • Despite the lack of connections to their flagship SMG4 series that Meta Runner and Sunset Paradise had on their side, the pilot for Murder Drones became the most viewed original animation by Glitch Productions ever, surpassing the view count of the premiere episode of Meta Runner with breakneck speed (with the latter racking up 3.1 million views in just over 2 years, and the former racking up 4 million in only 2 weeks).
  • The most famous YouTube Poop by pooper cs188 is "No one needs foundation repair", which he created merely as a one-off filler. It became famous after he was asked to take it off YouTube due to a privacy complaint from workers at the foundation company whose commercials he used in it. Now, countless Poopers have re-uploaded and mirrored it, and have given it countless Shout Outs in their own Poops.

    Web Original 
  • The Slender Man was not-at-all expected to leave Something Awful, or, at least, not get nearly as popular as it did. It started as a couple pictures for a contest... and, after Marble Hornets began, promptly exploded. Now there's movies and video games being made about Tall, Thin and Faceless, and as a dark twist to this, has caused people to attempt murder in the Slender Man's name.
  • After YouTube implemented the controversial COPPA compliance changes, alternative video sharing sites like Vlare.tvnote , Newgrounds and Odysee (which are smaller but more focused on Quality over Quantity) became this for a small subset of content creators who felt that their content would be unfairly flagged by YouTube, especially animators and/or people whose content could otherwise get mistaken for being family friendly.
  • Songs for Littles, which stars Miss Rachel, wasn't expected to be a big hit at first. But word of mouth about the show being educational due to its' emphasis on learning new words, along with parents who watched the show filming videos showing off how the show taught their younger kids to speak, caused the channel to become one of YouTube's biggest kids channels.

    Western Animation 
  • Adventure Time started out as a short produced for Nickelodeon's Random! Cartoons show, which was pre-screened and then leaked onto the Internet, where it gained a massive amount of popularity in 2007. People who liked the short were already begging for it to be made into a series then. It didn't matter if critics didn't like it, the show had a fanbase three years before it even aired.
  • While many found the concept and previews interesting, nobody expected Avatar: The Last Airbender to become such a phenomenal success, not even its creators. In fact, many anime fans considered the show's "animesque" look an affront. But by the time A:TLA was at its 8th episode, it had gathered a sizable fanbase that kept on growing. The show's enduring popularity earned it a sequel series in 2012 and it's regularly ranked as one of the best animated shows of all-time.
  • Big Mouth was hated by many when it first came out due to people thinking that the show's art style looked weird and because the show itself used too much Toilet Humor. But after a good advertising campaign hyping up the second season and word of mouth abut how the show was funny and relatable to most people's lives, it grew in popularity.
  • Bluey wasn't expected to be as popular as other children's shows were, but because it depicted a honest portrayal of the way parents interact with kids compared to many other shows of a similar nature, it gained a large following of kids and even adults.
  • No one thought Doc McStuffins, which also came out in 2012, would be so hugely popular. Once again, people were proven wrong, and it has the honor of being the first Disney show to get a 5th season.
  • When the Nicktoons brand started in 1991, Nickelodeon hoped Doug would be the smash hit Nicktoon at the time. In actuality, that honor went to The Ren & Stimpy Show. That show was itself dethroned by Rugrats as Nick's biggest hit, until SpongeBob SquarePants came along.
  • In a situation not to dissimilar from Regular Show and Adventure Time, Gravity Falls came out when Disney Channel had alienated many of their over-14 viewers with their endless crop of kidcoms, and Phineas and Ferb and Fish Hooks were the only animated series still running on the channel. Enter Gravity Falls, which came out of the blue with quick gags and random (and slightly dark/adult) jokes reminiscent of shows you'd expect from Cartoon Network, all tied together with an imaginative and intriguing darkly supernatural story. Suddenly, every episode had over a million views, MTV listed it as #2 on their top cartoons of 2012 list, and it now has a massive fanbase on social media sites.
  • Green Eggs and Ham was expected to do decently at best like most animated adaptations of Dr. Seuss. However, good word of mouth about the show's quality made it successful enough to be renewed for a second season and become a hit with not only families, but the animation community.
  • Hilda is a fairly obscure though critically acclaimed children's graphic novel series. The Netflix animated adaptation was made and released with little fanfare, but it quickly became a critical and commercial success thanks to excellent word of mouth. It also gathered quite the large following from Gravity Falls and Over the Garden Wall fans due to its similar setting about a magical woodland.
  • Invader Zim was originally pitched as an idea to Nickelodeon, who reluctantly green-lit the project and then screwed it over. Despite inconsistent timeslots and gaps between episodes, the show actually got great ratings (though apparently not great enough to justify the show's huge expenses) and a massive cult following. Eventually, Oni Press would publish a comic book continuation and Nickelodeon released a finale film on Netflix.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is one of the best examples out there. The original show from the '80s had the nostalgia factor going for it, but the most recent installment at that point, My Little Pony (G3) did not have the best reception from fans and had Sweetness Aversion going against it. Combined with the series as a whole often being seen by non-fans as a shamelessly Merchandise-Driven hack-job toy commercial, it was hard to see anyone besides hardcore MLP fans giving it a chance. Indeed, industry watchers thoroughly trashed the show before a single episode had aired. Then, after reading the articles and finding out Lauren Faust, who previously worked on Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends and The Powerpuff Girls, was the showrunner, people started to watch it, and it now has a Periphery Demographic rivaling that of Doctor Who and Star Trek. It even made it into a Super Bowl commercial!
  • A few people thought that the The Loud House would be a mild hit at best and do about as well as Nickelodeon's other shows that weren't SpongeBob SquarePants before eventually getting screwed over. However, the show proved to be an instant hit with kids and older Nick fans alike and had already garnered a large following before the show even premiered, as well as a sizable Testosterone Brigade thanks to the Loud sisters. In fact, the show was so successful in ratings it actually beat out SpongeBob as the network's highest rated show. It received a spinoff series in 2019.
  • PAW Patrol began as an obscure Canadian import from TVOntario during its run on Nick Jr. and wasn't expected to be a big hit among kids since it was a preschool show teaching social morals on a block dedicated to shows that taught educational morals. However, older viewers found that they could enjoy the show as much as the target audience, which lead to the Nick Jr. block returning on weekends to show re-runs. Because of this, the fact that most kids like superheroes and dogs, and Nick Jr. finding a successor to Disney Junior's crop of series with pro-social aesops, PAW Patrol dethroned Dora the Explorer as Nickelodeon's flagship preschool property.
  • Speaking of Phineas and Ferb, nobody expected it to make as much of an impact as it did. While most of the animated shows on Disney Channel would be pushed to the sidelines as live-action kidcoms got all the attention from both the network and its viewers. However, Phineas and Ferb had the benefit of airing its pilot episode directly after the premiere of the massively anticipated High School Musical 2. On top of that, the promos Disney put out at the time heavily emphasized that the characters would be voiced by actors known for their work on other shows and DCOMs. Combine those two together, and it was bound to be a decent hit out of the gate. However, the Word Of Mouth about its formulaic yet memorable writing style, with tons of memorable musical numbers and Parental Bonus worthy laughs would soon spread like wildfire. Within a few years it became one of Disney Channel's most popular shows ever, with a highly dedicated Periphery Demographic online, a hefty focus inside of the Disney Theme Parks, tons of merchandise for all sorts of demographics, and even ratings that were on par with their rival's biggest series.
  • Nobody expected Pibby, herself, to show up in time for Halloween as a new member of the [adult swim] family. But upon the trailer being released on YouTube on Adult Swim's behalf, it was an instant success, loved by both cartoon fans young and old and horror fans, making "Pibby" the second most popular cartoon pilot next to Infinity Train, although Pibby broke the record with a grand total of 6 million views on November 21, 2021. However, the trailer went on restricted mode for a short period of time, but after many fans proved that the series had a lot of potential, it was enough for the trailer to be released publicly again to great fanfare. Just seeing people show their full support for this series is enough for Pibby to cry tears of joy.
    • The same reaction happens again following Pibby's April Fool's Takeover on [adult swim], for a special event. Like the trailer, nobody expected Pibby to be the main event for the broadcast on April Fool's Day, but upon the broadcast airing from beginning to end, it was instantly loved by both old and new Pibby fans, as well as other people.
  • PJ Masks wasn't expected to amount to much for Disney Junior, given their track record with acquired foreign series (where they would either only air them once a day or late at night, or take the show on and off the schedule at random), but ended up becoming their first acquired series to be successful, to the point where merchandise sales and TV ratings for the show beat those of their in-house programming.
  • Ready Jet Go!: The series was an unexpected hit when it premiered. Despite the early promos for the show making it look bad, it outperformed channel average by 32% during its' premiere and gained over 100 million streams online. It had the most online streams at launch for any PBS Kids show, until Donkey Hodie five years later.
  • Recess was originally just going to be another Disney animated series. But due to excellent word of mouth, critical acclaim, and a huge Periphery Demographic, it ended up outliving most of the other shows on the One Saturday Morning block, had a very successful movie, and was rerun to death on every Disney station.
  • Regular Show was one of only two shows to survive one of Cartoon Network's failed projects, right during the channel's Audience-Alienating Era. Sure enough, it and Adventure Time helped Cartoon Network out of its slump, and it was easily the second-most popular show on the channel for most of its run.
  • Many people expected Sofia the First to be a modest hit at best, what with the reputation of preschool shows on the Internet. And yet it turned out to be a very well written show that was able to appeal to multiple levels. As of this writing (October 2017), it's been on the air for 5 years and 4 seasons. In fact, Craig Gerber's next Disney Junior series, the spinoff Elena of Avalor, managed to gain even more success partially due to Sofia's fanbase.
  • Back in 1999, no one knew SpongeBob SquarePants was going to be as wicked popular as it became... outside Nickelodeon Animation Studio, at least. Internally, it was a case of And You Thought It Would Fail, as artists at the studio were completely convinced Stephen Hillenburg and his crew had a hit on their hands, while execs mostly shunned the show in favor of Rocket Power and other Klasky-Csupo series due to the success of Rugrats as well as CatDog.
  • Britt Allcroft, creator of Thomas & Friends, did not believe her series would do as well as it became, as previous attempts to adapt source material The Railway Series flopped (most notably "The Sad Story of Henry"). Today, Thomas is one of the most popular franchises among preschool boys, and has something of a Periphery Demographic on the Internet (leading it to become one of the most popular YouTube Poop sources ever), all thanks to her!
  • Many people thought that Teen Titans Go!, like most other shows aired during DC Nation at the time, would be screwed over and quickly canned by the network. But since it was Lighter and Softer than the other DC Nation shows, it gained a huge following of kids and dethroned fellow sleeper Adventure Time as Cartoon Network's flagship show, getting ratings that were on par not only with other family-oriented channels, but with prime time shows on broadcast networks. Teen Titans Go's massive success also helped Cartoon Network become the highest-rated kids' channel in 2015 and 2016, causing the ratings of its rival channels to drop significantly.