Such comparisons are only convincing until they're spoiled by Nielsen. Since the start of the season, 66 of the 87 broadcast premieres outperformed the highest-rated scripted cable season premiere in recent memory -- the June opening of "The Closer."
"The Ghost Whisperer" premiere (a 2.4 rating) beat "The Closer" (2.2). So did Fox's "Til Death" (2.8), NBC's "Las Vegas" (2.5) and ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos" (2.6).
And that's comparing cable's highest-rated scripted show (tying with USA miniseries "The Starter Wife") to all of broadcast. Cable hits "Burn Notice" and "Saving Grace" (1.5) are bested by broadcast shows as modest as The CW's "Smallville" (1.9). The CW's 78th-ranked "Girlfriends" premiere rated the same as "Army Wives" and "Monk" (all 1.2). Looking at the second week of the broadcast season, only four cable shows (all sports and pro wrestling) cracked the top 100 programs.
"There seems to be confusion between media buzz and public perception," said one frustrated broadcast network executive. "The press writes about these huge hits, and they're not even close."
Now to muddy things: "Closer," "Notice," "Grace," "Monk," "Dexter," "Wives" and others are successful for their networks. They are, in their network's universe, "hits." In some cases, they are more profitable than broadcast shows.
But when comparing what shows most people actually sit down and watch, it does help to have a little ratings perspective.
Wading into this issue carries the high risk of starting a cable vs. broadcast battle -- a tired periodic story that every entertainment publication is guilty of reporting -- that's increasingly meaningless as the ownership and distribution of networks become intermingled. Teen viewers with a cable box, analysts note, have no clue there's any difference between NBC and the Sci Fi Channel (okay, so that's a bad example, especially this fall).
"You can cherry-pick a show here or there, but people are spending more time on cable than broadcast," reminds Turner research guru and cable vs. broadcast frontline general Jack Wakshlag.
Wakshlag issues periodic reports showing the cable audience growing at the expense of broadcast. Broadcasters note their five networks are competing for attention with a rapidly expanding cable universe— 403 networks, 137 sports channel and 154 pay networks, by one recent count. Wakshlag counters that he only includes about 100 channels in his reports.
"It's like having two armies," says Wakshlag, conveniently continuing the battlefield metaphor. "One has taller fighters. The other has many, many more. Who will win?"
On the other hand, you also have to factor—wait. This has become yet another cable vs. broadcast story hasn't it? Damn...