Hit Shows That Got Off To A Slow Start: Chicago Fire


Welcome to ‘Hit Shows That Got Off To A Slow Start,’ a recurring series on successful TV shows that did not start off that way. This edition focuses on NBC’s Dick Wolf-produced firefighter drama, Chicago Fire. 

When Chicago Fire premiered in fall 2012, Dick Wolf’s status on NBC was not in particularly good standing. Gone were the days of Law & Order dominance. The original had been canceled after 20 seasons in 2010. A failed successor, Law & Order: LA, lasted just one season before being canceled in 2011. Just a month after its cancelation, Law & Order: Criminal Intent wrapped its post-NBC run on sister network USA Network. That left Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as the only Law & Order show left airing original episodes.

For its part, Law & Order: SVU was also not doing great, holding far from the value it holds today. In the 2011-12 season, it averaged a 2.30 Live +7 Adults 18-49 rating, coming in 17th place on NBC (81st overall). That was a steep decline from its 10th place finish on NBC (tied for 52nd overall) in Live +7 in the 2010-11 season. Despite clearly being in decline and as part of a franchise that looks to be on its way to extinction, Law & Order: SVU was tasked with launching a new series in the 2012-13 season: Chicago Fire. 

Even though the ratings for SVU were paltry, NBC did have reason to pair it up with Chicago Fire. Dick Wolf created SVU and executive produces Chicago Fire, making for a presumably compatible block of dramas. Plus, if Chicago Fire flopped, it wouldn’t hurt too much being at 10 pm; though, affiliates certainly were not hoping for another flop after the Jay Leno Show fiasco. 

In its first season, Chicago Fire showed some promise. It was far from a hit, coming in 12th place on NBC and tied for 57th overall at a 2.3 Live +7 Adults 18-49 rating. That was far below the post-Voice new drama Revolution’s 4.0, and even behind Friday drama Grimm’s 2.4. It did, however, manage to out-rate Law & Order: SVU, no small feat for a lead-out. A renewal was never in question, but nobody was pretending it was some breakout hit immediately deserving of a spinoff. Nobody except NBC, that is. 

A spinoff of Chicago Fire, the still-airing Chicago PD, made its way onto the way midway through Fire’s second season. Chicago Fire’s first-season ratings really did not warrant a spinoff. Clearly, NBC was looking to make another franchise with Dick Wolf as the Law & Order franchise declined to just one show. Simply by creating Chicago PD, the optics were that Chicago Fire was a hit series; after all, why would a network give a spin-off to a show that was performing poorly? Chicago PD, for its part, didn’t start off much better than Chicago Fire did, and itself could have a Hit Shows That Got Off To A Slow Start article. Its first season came in 12th place on NBC and tied for 54th overall in Live +7, averaging a 2.808 rating. NBC was destined to make Chicago Fire a breakout hit in time for Chicago PD’s premiere, airing it behind The Voice for the first half of Season 2 and boosting it to 5th place on the network with a 3.509 seasonal average. 

NBC would go on to begin airing Chicago Med while Chicago Fire was in its 4th season, airing it right between The Voice and Chicago Fire on Tuesdays. After a stumble the following season that involved a struggle to get Chicago Fire sold into syndication and a cancelation for the short-lived midseason Sunday drama Chicago Justice, NBC booted Law & Order: SVU out of its long-standing Wednesday time slot and created an all-Chicago block. Chicago Fire would anchor at 9 pm, in between Chicago Med and Chicago PD. 

This ‘One Chicago’ block is going into its sixth season intact, something practically unprecedented. Every show benefitted from being scheduled together with the others. Since the 2019-20 season, they have been NBC’s top three scripted series not named This Is Us. One could argue the Chicago franchise breaking out even put new life back into the Law & Order franchise, which as of late has also been airing in an all-night block. It all started with the growth of Chicago Fire, which now has 11 seasons and 239 episodes under its belt. 

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