The novel approach to courtroom drama, the CBS television series Bull stars Michael Weatherly as Doctor Jason Bull whose job it is to select the jury that will get his clients off the hook. It is a combination of psychology and high tech processes that are applied to everyone from the witnesses to the jurors. Bull has his own firm, Trial Analysis Corporation, and he takes the lead on every case. The show also stars Geneva Carr, Jaime Lee Kirchner, Freddy Rodriguez, and Christopher Jackson.
Ratings-wise, the show current is a Top Five performer for the network, attracting a median 6.3 million viewers per episode for both the Season 3 and Season 4 extensions of the show. As of this article, there are no plans to cancel the show’s upcoming 5th season. Though there is still time for the network to decide, the show hangs on a precipice created by the show’s star, Michael Weatherly.
One of the reasons for the real life season ending drama is that Weatherly had been accused by Eliza Dushku, an actress who had appeared on Bull for three Season 1 episodes. That claim was settled by CBS for a reported $9.5 million over conduct that was characterized as verbal sexual harassment and offensive behavior by Weatherly over a period of weeks. The show’s ratings plummeted almost 31% at the beginning of Season 3, when the allegations and settlement went public.
Since then, the ratings have been as volatile as the Dow Jones, with one week climbing more than 12% and finding itself falling the same 12% a few weeks later. While Weatherly’s misconduct can be connected to the 31% freefall at the beginning of the 3rd season, the erratic ups and downs appear to have more to do with the show itself than any residual effect.
But as with all-things-Hollywood, there are expected complications. Often those complications are connected to money, and so is the case with Weatherly and Bull. Added to the mix is an elite producer and well-known name in Hollywood who was banking the show’s first three seasons, and the pressure for cancellation grows considerably. That producer, Steven Spielberg, owns a production company, Amblin Television, that was producing the first three seasons. As it turns out, Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw, are both fierce advocates for the #TimesUp movement, an offshoot of the #Metoo movement. Once the settlement was announced, Spielberg exited stage right, and took his money with him.
When a major funder of a major show leaves, the question is where will the future funding come from? That burden falls primarily on advertisers. What is odd about the accusations and settlement, given the political climate and publicity given the lawsuit, is that there was no backlash from fans to boycott the advertisers of Bull and it appears that no much boycott will appear after more than six months since the revelation. At this point it looks safe from an advertising perspective to move on with the show, if …
The second part of the dilemma is how the sexual misconduct event affected viewership. While the ratings have see-sawed over seasons 3 and 4, the actual viewership numbers have stayed about the same, wobbling between 6.2 and 6.7 million per episode. Bull ranked 12th in total viewership of all TV shows for the period of April 15 – 21, 2019, yet did not crack the top 25 rated shows for the same period. Its current slot is on Monday nights at 10 p.m. The reason this particular week was selected is because there were no sports playoff or championship games scheduled, so it is a better assessment of actual audience interest.
So we have the ratings, which is a key metric for advertisers and subsequent ad revenue for the network, and actual viewers who tune in and out from week to week. The outrage against Weatherly seems to have largely subsided, so the fate of the show is expected to be largely decided on the quality of the collective episodes. Its worst weeks of Season 4 had 6.2 million people watching, which still keeps it in the top 25 for the week against its competitors.
After looking at the numbers and the absence of any significant backlash against Weatherly or advertisers, the simplest conclusion that can be drawn is that except for the first week or two of Season 3, all the hype against Bull was exactly that. This may be an isolated example, but it appears that the general public has grown weary of the political bias infused into the most trivial of matters and is largely ignoring its reporting.
For the record, Eliza Dushku was clearly wronged by the Neanderthal behavior of Weatherly, and the amount of the settlement seemed equitable to all parties. What the media thinks doesn’t matter because everyone seems to have moved on. Dushku is an experienced actress, and while her claim that she was written out of the show because of the lawsuit may well be valid, she made her case to the media and continues with her career. For his part, Weatherly seems to be publicly contrite about the issue.
There is another oddity about this sexual harassment issue that is directly related to the show’s numbers. The roughly 1 million viewers that the show lost as a result of the settlement didn’t actually affect the show’s position in the overall ranking by viewership. Make no mistake, losing 1 million viewers and the financial backing of a show is not to be taken lightly. Yet five months later the show is still 5 million viewers behind the top rated of the group.
The prediction is that Bull will rage on and be renewed as long as it averages 6.5 million viewers per episode. As a matter of television history, people love legal dramas (can you say Law & Order: SVU ?) and Bull is off the beaten path. The reality seems to be that people like their drama to take place on television, and dismiss attempts by the media to create their own melodrama.