An 'American Idol' Kind of Year

Rash Report: The Most Watched Shows of 2007

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Time has already named its Person of the Year (Russian President Vladmir Putin), and Sports Illustrated crowned its Sportsman of the Year (football's Brett Favre), so the Rash Report felt like it was time to step up and name the most watched TV shows of the year.
Jeff Zucker deemed 'American Idol' 'the most impactful show in the history of television.'
Jeff Zucker deemed 'American Idol' 'the most impactful show in the history of television.'

Nielsen has kept score all year. But unlike the publishing industry, the ratings firm hasn't released a special issue, content to let the specials and sports -- and some regular programming -- tell the stories of TV 2007. Accordingly, in lieu of the week's top 10 list of network prime-time programs in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, the Rash Report reports on the year's top 10.

Regularly Scheduled Series/Original Episodes
"American Idol" (Wednesday) Fox; 11.2/29
"American Idol" (Tuesday) 10.8/29
"Grey's Anatomy" ABC; 8.0/20
"House" Fox; 7.7/19
"Sunday Night Football" NBC; 6.4/16
"Desperate Housewives" ABC; 6.3/15
"CSI" CBS; 6.0/15
"Dancing with the Stars" (Monday) ABC; 4.9/13
"Heroes" NBC; 4.9/12
"Lost" ABC; 4.8/13

What it meant in 2007
NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker wasn't just whistling Dixie -- or past the graveyard -- when he deemed "American Idol" as "the most impactful show in the history of television." Just one look at the year's top 10 series (let alone the single episodes listed below) show how "Idol" not only wins big, but dominates for two nights and often for four hours on Fox's limited 15 hour a week schedule

The scripted series are all dramas, as the search for the seminal sitcom that defines the decade and redefines the genre continues. Most notable is that none of the series were designed as "star vehicles" meant to drive Nielsen ratings on the strength of a known actor. Rather, stars became famous (or rescued their careers, like Teri Hatcher in "Desperate Housewives") because of crisp scripts. Indeed, as with almost all great TV, the real TV stars are ones with vision and a laptop, as creators such as Marc Cherry ("Desperate Housewives"), Shonda Rhimes ("Grey's Anatomy") and J.J. Abrams ("Lost), among others, show what's at stake with the strike.

But the dog that didn't bark, as Sherlock Holmes would say if he traded his deerstalker hat for green eyeshades, is the fall 2007 season, as not a single series made it on to the top 10, unlike last year's "Heroes," 2005's "Grey's Anatomy" or 2004's "House," "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives."

What it means in 2008
At least on a temporary basis, Fox can take heart that "Idol" will have even less competition than last year and may position the News Corp. net better than any rival. And ABC can hope that its "Dancing with the Stars" franchise continues its pop culture journey from a jaunty summer series to a near permanent fixture on the schedule.

So, sure, Fox looks sly compared to rivals as it can bank on the NFL playoffs and "American Idol" in 2008. But this is TV triage for a larger, looming crisis: Not only are scripted series set to go dark, but no new hits are jumping from the cover of Television Week to Newsweek as instant indicators of a realignment of pop-culture popularity.

But regardless of how well a few reality shows perform, many viewers reject the genre altogether, and a schedule replete with repeats and reality may make January look like June. Indeed, a Nielsen analysis of the regularly scheduled series (with reruns taken into account) shows a dizzying drop for many of the dramas, as "Grey's" and "Desperate" lose 35% of the first-run rating, "House" loses 29% and "CSI" a quarter. "Heroes" held up best, but is most likely due to late-adapters trying to catch up on the buzz once the series cut through the cultural clutter. Months of reruns due to striking writers would probably accelerate this erosion, as many viewers may simply give up.

All telecasts
"Super Bowl" CBS; 34.1/70
"AFC Championship" CBS; 17.4/39
"NFC Championship" Fox; 16.0/47
"American Idol" (Jan. 16) Fox; 15.0/35
"American Idol" (Jan. 17) Fox; 14.7/35
"Academy Awards" ABC; 13.4/33
"American Idol" (Jan. 24) Fox; 13.3/34
"American Idol" (Jan. 31) Fox; 12.9/31
"American Idol" (Feb. 6) Fox; 12.7/32
"NFL" Patriots vs. Cowboys CBS; 12.6/38
"American Idol" (Jan. 30) Fox; 12.6/32

What it meant in 2007
Americans like conflict with clear winners and losers.

Country crooner Hank Williams Jr.'s "Are you ready for some football?" has been answered soundly this decade as the NFL has replaced Major League Baseball as America's pastime. (Indeed, had this list included all the pre- and post-game it would have been nearly all football.)

And "Idol's" top spots are more reflective of the often culturally cruel "gong show" early rounds, as opposed to the more uplifting later rounds, as some viewers are apparently more interested in laughing at butts of jokes like infamous contestant William Hung than hanging around to enjoy budding stars like Carrie Underwood.

What it means in 2008
All of the single episode top 10 will run again in 2008, so the first-rate, first-run list may ironically look like a rerun, with the possible exception of the Academy Awards, which may come off as flat as the movies industry itself if scriptwriters don't ride in and rescue it.

The 2008 List ...
... is anyone's guess, as all bets are off with the Screen Actors Guild set to double down on the picket line at the end of June.

What is predictable is that the stories off-screen will often be as interesting as those on-screen during TV's turbulent times.

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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. In order to report ratings on a timely basis, all the ratings listed here reflect a Nielsen Live number. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of a commercial minute, live-plus-3 viewing basis.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.
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