What Did America Watch This Summer?

Rash Report: Top 10 Highest-Rated Shows of the Season

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- It was the last "Dance" last night, as "So You Think You Can Dance" had its season finale. It was also the last dance for the summer season, albeit unofficially, and a bit early, as summer series like "Dance" and "America's Got Talent" make way for Americans with athletic talent marching alongside the world in tonight's opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing.
Fox's 'Hell's Kitchen' had the highest ratings this summer.
Fox's 'Hell's Kitchen' had the highest ratings this summer. Credit: Fox

Both "Dance" and "Talent" went out with a bang, as Thursday's top telecasts in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic. Thursday night's "Dance" delivered a 3.4/11 rating and share to rank second in this week's top 10, while Wednesday's delivered a 3.1/10 for third. And "America's Got Talent" got a sixth-place 2.7/8 after winning the week with Tuesday's version, which posted a 3.5/10 (all ratings reflect Nielsen live-plus-same-day, except Thursday, which are based on fast affiliate ratings).

Escape to reality
Reality dominated all summer as a matter of fact. For regularly scheduled summer series post-May sweeps, the "Dance" two-step on Wednesday and Thursday ranked fourth and fifth while rankings for "America's Got Talent" were number three nationally for the summer. And on Fox, viewers could evidently stand the heat and the kitchen, as "Hell's Kitchen" had the highest ratings this summer. Fox also had the 10th-highest summer series with "Moment of Truth."

ABC had the most notable new reality entry, the Japanese-inspired "Wipeout," which was second for the summer, but faded to fifth for the week with a 2.8/9. The network also had many make a date with "The Bachelorette," which was the ninth-highest-rated summer series.

This means that seven of the season's top 10 were low-cost (and often low-concept) reality shows, as the reality genre has come to define summertime prime time. But no show came close to jumping from the cover of Television Week to Newsweek as a TV touchstone that tells a broader media or societal story. Rather, they're more like placid placeholders: easy to watch, but just as easy to miss. (CBS's "Big Brother" is a prime prime-time example as well, with Tuesday's installment eighth this week with a 2.5/7.)

Let's see that again
The other summer staple -- reruns -- accounted for just three of the summer's and this week's top 10. CBS's "Two and a Half Men" finally has the cultural recognition to match its commercial standing, as it was nominated for an Emmy Award as best comedy. It finished fourth this week with a 3.0/9 and sixth overall for the summer. And the buddy comedy brought along Monday-night pals "The New Adventures of Old Christine" (tied for 10th this week with a 2.4/7 and 11th for its three-week summer stint) and "Rules of Engagement," which was even more popular for its May/June run, ranking eighth after six summer episodes.

Fox's animation also showed some life this summer -- and this week -- "Family Guy" was 13th for the summer and tied for 10th for the week with a 2.4/7.

Unlike the regular season's sitcom struggles, comedy is often a better offering in the off-season, as it repeats better. Which makes sense, as it is more natural to drop back in for a laugh than relive a dramatic dénouement for the second time, which is why shows like ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" perform so poorly once season finales have aired.

The one exception to this rerun rule was rule-breaker Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) on Fox's "House," which was seventh this summer (but 17th this week with a 2.0/6).

Sports events a winner
Of course, there were single-episode specials that were singularly spectacular, like Fox's "All-Star Game" and pre-game. Not as high-rated, but still making this week's top 10, was Sunday's NBC's NFL exhibition game, which was seventh with a 2.6/8. These sports specials will soon become somewhat of a miniseries with maximum ratings this week, as the Olympics should win each night's ratings race.

But missing from the season's top 10 -- not to mention almost all of network TV in general -- were first-run, first-rate scripted series of the sort that have come to define summer cable. The Disney Channel's "Camp Rock" was a pop-culture event in the middle of summer (at least for those in the middle of their adolescence), and shows like TNT's "Saving Grace" and "The Closer" have closed the ratings gap and are commercial and cultural breakthroughs.

And critically, this will be the summer that basic cable's basic strategy of filling the network void with programming good enough for broadcast was officially recognized, with FX's "Damages" and AMC's "Mad Men" nominated for best-drama Emmys.

Indeed, the crisp scripts and crisp suits of "Mad Men" have not only awed audiences, but even inspired the fashion world, with a planned fashion line by designer Michael Kors, as reported by Ad Age's Natalie Zmuda. Conversely, despite higher average ratings, it's hard to imagine the average show on network TV this summer inspiring a fashion line. That is, unless it's the standard summer uniform of shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops, which would be fitting, given the lazy days of summer -- and summer prime-time programming in 2008.

Highest-rated shows from May 19-Aug. 6

  1. Hell's Kitchen (Fox)
  2. Wipeout (ABC)
  3. America's Got Talent (NBC)
  4. So You Think You Can Dance — Wed. (Fox)
  5. So You Think You Can Dance — Thurs. (Fox)
  6. Two and Half Men (CBS)
  7. House (Fox)
  8. Rules of Engagement (CBS)
  9. The Bachelorette (ABC)
  10. Moment of Truth (Fox)

Highest-rated shows for week of Aug. 3

  1. America's Got Talent — Tues., 3.5/10
  2. So You Think You Can Dance — Thurs., 3.4/11
  3. So You Think You Can Dance — Wed., 3.1/10
  4. Two and Half Men, 3.0/9
  5. Wipeout, 2.8/9
  6. America's Got Talent — Thurs., 2.7/8
  7. NFL exhibition game, 2.6/8
  8. Big Brother, 2.5/7
  9. New Christine, 2.4/7
  10. Family Guy, 2.4/7

It's easy to be skeptical, or even cynical, about the youth of the world gathering in peaceful, sports harmony when on the same day a war breaks out between Russia and Georgia over the disputed region of South Ossetia. But this is exactly why the world needs the Olympic Games, lest the battlefield totally transcend the playing field. And the Olympic Games are why the nation still needs the networks, as they still have the ability to create a spectacular, shared viewing opportunity.
Friday: The Opening Ceremonies, which promise to highlight not only the athletes, but thousands of years of Chinese history.
Saturday and Sunday: Everybody into the pool! But especially the Americans and Australians, the Yankees-Red Sox of Olympic swimming.

A great show by Beijing and NBC, with dominance in most demos. But several markets have prime-time NFL exhibition games, which could draw away male viewers, exacerbating the Olympic gender gap.

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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 that have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.
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