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‘Tracker’ hunts down ratings for CBS

Procedural drama most watched series for 2023-24 season

By Stephen Battaglio, Los Angeles Times
Published: June 1, 2024, 6:02am

In the age before streaming, there was no better prize for new series than to premiere after the Super Bowl.

Over the years, networks have used the powerful audience lead-in of the premier NFL event’s 100 million-plus viewers to provide sampling for a new series. Such hits as “The Wonder Years,” “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Family Guy” received their first exposure after the broadcast.

Lately, the post-Super Bowl stunt has been used less often. The TV networks that carry the event now try to maximize ratings and revenue by putting established hits in the time period rather than take a chance with a new show that may not break out in the long run (the list of those that didn’t is long).

But CBS is seeing the approach pay off this year with “Tracker,” which has become the most-watched entertainment series on television for the 2023-24 season. It’s the first freshman show to achieve that status since “Survivor” in 2000. The show stars Justin Hartley (“This Is Us”) as a “rewardist,” who travels around the country in a silver Airstream trailer to find missing people for reward money. The series was adapted from the Jeffery Deaver novel “The Never Game.”

CBS Entertainment President Amy Reisenbach said in a recent interview that “Tracker” was the first pilot she watched after taking over as programming chief at the network. She immediately pegged it for the time slot following the network’s telecast of the big game on Feb. 11.

A record 123.4 million viewers watched the Kansas City Chiefs defeat the San Francisco 49ers. Nielsen data showed 18.4 million viewers hung around after the game to sample “Tracker.” Although that’s not the blockbuster number of previous post-Super Bowl shows, the true measure of success is how many of them return in subsequent weeks.

On that score, “Tracker” held on with solid ratings. The show settled into Paramount Global-owned CBS’ Sunday night lineup averaging more than 11 million viewers a week, including live viewing and DVR. When playback and streaming on Paramount+ is added in over 35 days, the show is watched by more than 19 million people.

“Tracker” is a one-hour procedural drama that gives viewers a story with a satisfactory conclusion at the end of every episode. The formula continues to work well with the traditional TV audience that tunes in to CBS. But the series has a different feel than the network’s other dramas, which typically depend on ensemble casts.

Although Hartley’s character, Colter Shaw, has a support team to assist him on cases, he is onscreen nearly every minute of the show. He is the stranger who rolls into a new town each week to help solve people’s problems.

Shaw is haunted by his father’s mysterious death — shown in the series pilot — giving “Tracker” a continuing secondary storyline that provides insight into the character’s behavior.

Reisenbach believes the serialized element helps “Tracker” play well on streaming platforms, where viewers are more likely to settle in and binge a few episodes at a time.

Ken Olin, executive producer of “Tracker,” believes Hartley has the type of durable onscreen presence that makes viewers comfortable on a weekly basis. The hunky actor’s appeal gives the writers latitude with character. Although Shaw is a hero, he has a flexible moral code. He also isn’t shy about asking for his reward payment.

“There is a trope in television that ‘it can’t be about the money,’” Olin said. “To me, that was very important in making sure it has a contemporary aspect to it. You get paid for a job well done. That’s a significant aspect of American life.”

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