MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- It didn't start out to be a very good week for journalism -- or the public it strives to serve.
The first in a stack of studies measuring how informed people are included a Harris poll indicating that Americans' attention span for foreign political news -- let alone campaign 2008 drama -- is relatively short, with political news a distraction, or even an abstraction, for many. Two-thirds of U.S. adults admitted to being uninformed about global politics, with one third hazy on the home front as well.
Taking a break from broadcast news -- the preferred medium for most Americans -- and cracking a book to give context to the headlines seemingly isn't the answer either (despite excellent exposes of the war in Iraq by reporters from The New York Times and Washington Post, among others): Tuesday's AP-Ipsos poll reported that 25% of Americans didn't read a single book this year and reading is receding in this internet age.
Based on Wednesday's premiere of Fox's controversial "Anchorwoman," it's a good guess one of these uninformed Americans is Lauren Jones, the neophyte news anchor whose journalism education and experience evidently include being a former "Price is Right" Barker Beauty, bikini model, WWE Diva and Miss New York. The attempt to make her a reporter and news reader for a CBS affiliate in Tyler, Texas, included mortifying moments that were not exactly what Edward R. Murrow (let alone Ted Baxter) had in mind.
Much of the criticism has been directed at the jovial Jones, the newly minted journalist. But it was really the concept and construct of local broadcast news that looked bad, not the good-looking model, who is in keeping with other summer reality contestants hustling for fame (and maybe fortune). Despite today's era of soft news and a hard media marketplace, more is expected of professional journalists, so the most curious story about "Anchorwoman" is why Fox risked denigrating not only its own affiliates' news organizations but the oft-criticized Fox News Channel itself -- particularly after News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch spent his summer vacation trying to reassure readers he would maintain the editorial integrity of his recently purchased Wall Street Journal.
Two of those Fox News Channel critics had a prominent platform the same day of the debut of "Anchorwoman." Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, and the particularly partisan documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald unveiled a viral-video campaign showing the journalistic juxtaposition of Fox News Channel's coverage of the run-up to the war in Iraq and what critics consider the war drums being beaten over Iran.
Then, like the best news stories, the week took an interesting turn.
The Society of Professional Journalists' concern over "Anchorwoman" was replaced by society's ho-hum to the hubbub it had caused: The 1.0/3 rating and share in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic resulted in Fox falling to a fourth-place tie with the CW in the time period. With "Anchorwoman" unable to anchor the night, Fox canceled it within the same news cycle, as the viewing public seemingly surmised the show was perhaps part of this summer's reality programming but not necessarily in keeping with the spirit of it.
Indeed, Americans understand that "America's Got Talent" -- NBC's talent show with the charm of summer camp -- isn't anything more than escapism from the dreary drumbeat of war and gore that anchorwomen (including Lauren Jones) should know, let alone report. Hosted by Jerry Springer -- a former news anchor himself who was rebuffed when he mulled going legit and running for a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio -- the finale of "America's Got Talent" delivered a 3.9/12 to be the top-rated show of the week. The same can be said (or sung) of the network's "The Singing Bee" (second with a 3.1/9) and "Last Comic Standing," which finished fourth with a 2.8/8, or CBS's "Big Brother" and ABC's "Just for Laughs" which tied for seventh with a 2.5/7.
Other summer diversions rounded out the top 10: Fox's "Family Guy" once again had two episodes included; Sunday's 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. episodes were sixth and fifth with a 2.7/7 and 2.8/7, respectively. It was joined by a second showing of CBS's "Two and a Half Men" (third with a 2.9/8), one of the few shows to repeat respectably during rerun season. The NFL preseason continues to show the strength of the league, with NBC's "Sunday Night Football" in the rugby-like scrum for seventh, tying ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and two aforementioned programs with a 2.5/7. (Last night's ratings results are not reflected, due to a data delay.)
But the biggest ratings news was about news itself. And it was good news for those expecting a more credentialed, credible anchorwoman. Christiane Amanpour, the erudite, cosmopolitan correspondent who used to signify CNN -- but who somehow didn't get a show when Nancy Grace and Glenn Beck did on cable cousin Headline News -- ran a well-considered, compelling three-part documentary, "God's Warriors," that returned CNN to its reporting and ratings legacy. The first two nights upended the cable news race, beating the usually unbeatable Fox News Channel and the halting MSNBC's momentum by delivering a .33 and .42 in the demo.
True, that's less than half the rating of "Anchorwoman." But after this week, at least it's a start.
~ ~ ~ NOTE: A share is a percentage of TV households that have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all TV households, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. households with a TV. Ad deals traditionally have been negotiated on the basis of live-viewing figures, though Nielsen Media Research and the broadcast networks release viewership statistics that include live-plus-same-day playback on digital video recorders. All the ratings listed here are live.
John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.