Laugh factory

The setup-punch line formula that established its rabid fan base continues to build "Family Guy's" viewership.

The poster for the "Star Wars" episode of "Family Guy." (BONUS NERD TRIVIA: "Blue Harvest" was a fake production name used during filming of "Star Wars: Episode VI -- Return of the Jedi.")
Plenty of shows can boast legions of hard-core fans -- but their ardor doesn't always translate into high ratings for the network. And even if a show finds its audience, it's rare to see ratings increase several seasons into an on-air run. But just as Seth MacFarlane's "Family Guy" defied expectations with its raunchy inside jokes that toe the line between edgy and offensive, it's shown that -- thanks to additional distribution methods and a changing media landscape -- a twice-canceled series can survive and thrive.

During 2001-02, its last full season before its second cancelation, "Family Guy" averaged a 7.1 share among men 18-49, according to Nielsen Media Research data, but when it returned in the 2005-06 season, its delivery in the demo surged to a 12.8 share. And it's been growing incrementally ever since. The first three episodes of the 2007-08 season averaged a 14.9 share in the demo, despite going up against pro football on NBC.

That demo power has translated to marketplace clout, too. "Family Guy's" CPMs are now in the top 5% for all Fox shows, according to Jon Nesvig, president of sales, Fox Broadcasting Co.

Once upon a time, when poor ratings doomed a network TV show, the powers-that-be simply canceled the program and moved on. End of story. In a few rare cases, something as quaint as a letter-writing campaign might get a program a brief stay of execution (think: the original "Star Trek" after its second season). But shows living on borrowed time rarely survived for long (think: the original "Star Trek" after its third season).

However, Fox's change of heart about "Family Guy" points toward shifting dynamics in media. Fans advocating giving a show a second chance can now put their money where their mouth is. DVD sales and the popularity of "Family Guy" reruns on Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" very much influenced the network.

"When you get that kind of positive response, it spreads awareness, people sample and keep it going," Nesvig says. "You have the best of both worlds as viewers recruit other viewers."

Today, DVD sales and a cable presence are old-school when it comes to new marketing and distribution avenues for network shows, which now might include podcasts, online, VOD and mobile. "Family Guy's" Web site includes links to Xbox Live Video Marketplace, which offers full episodes for download, mobile messaging, ringtones, desktop wallpapers and screensavers, all of which work to extend the brand.

"'Family Guy' was not very visible back" when it was canceled, says Kris Magel, senior vp national broadcast at Zenith Media. "It is a very good example of how new distribution methods are allowing audiences to show their support for a program."

Brad Adgate, senior vp and director of research at Horizon Media, agrees that new outlets for network programming have changed the old wisdom about cancelations. "We're coming into an era when ratings are not the final determinant of what is renewed. Right now 'Family Guy' is an anomaly, but in the near future that could change."

While the story behind "Family Guy's" revival is about the changing media landscape, the reason it has thrived after its resurrection is more traditional: It consistently delivers desirable demos. Its strong showing in the first few weeks of this season against football on NBC was undoubtedly buoyed by a one-hour "Star Wars"-themed season opener. But, Nesvig says, prior to this season the whole Sunday night animation block has done well against other programming that is strong in the male 18-34 demo, like the Olympics.

"They have just one night that is laser-targeted, so you have a limited supply," adds Zenith's Magel.

And while a limited supply makes the show seem expensive, next to other 18-34 demo programming, Magel explains, buying "Family Guy" eliminates waste when looking for the younger end and male portion of that demo.

"It's a block that is very desirable because its viewers are younger than typical," says Adgate about Fox's Sunday night. These viewers are hard to reach because they tend to be light television viewers, but this group is important because they are early adapters.

And as for "Family Guy's" questionable content, when targeting that particular demo, edgier content isn't just acceptable, it's imperative, Magel says.

The content also appeals to that group in the way it lends itself to new technology. "The great thing about 'Family Guy' and Seth MacFarlane is that he's one of the funniest joke tellers you'll find. And that kind of quick burst of content plays well in digital formats like mobile," Nesvig says.