If you're referring to the union of states, it's strong -- at least according to President Bush, who delivered his final State of the Union speech Monday night. Then again, every president -- regardless of political proclivity -- says it's strong. But the speech fell flat, at least according to the ratings.
Nielsen's nine-network, cumulative 24.7/38 household rating and share was down nearly 17% from last year and was the least-watched of the Bush presidency. (Individual network and specific demographic ratings are not available, as the State of the Union is not a "commercial broadcast.")
The decline may mirror approval ratings, or it simply may be the viewer (and voter) fatigue that comes with any eight-year incumbent. The rating for Bill Clinton's last State of the Union was even lower: a 22.4/35. That was down dramatically from the 37.2/56 for his 1998 address, after the blue dress and red-faced denials associated with the Monica Lewinsky scandal had hit just 10 days before.
Indeed, the news narrative has a dramatic impact not just on the president's rhetoric but on the ratings as well. President Bush's 2002 "Axis of Evil" speech following Sept. 11 had quite a following, up 30.1% from the year before with a 33.6/49. Even more people watched the next year, as the run-up to the Iraq war ran up ratings 19.9% to a 38.8/56.
Regardless what the vote totals are in 2008, however, expect the victor's viewer totals for the 2009 State of the Union address to jump, as an electrified electorate has already been crowding ballot boxes and sitting in front of TV boxes for primaries and televised debates. Presidents Clinton and Bush both had high ratings the first time they played Capitol Hill, with newly elected President Clinton delivering a 44.3 in 1993 (shares are not available) -- but dropping more than 30% the next year to a 32.9. And viewers hung with President Bush following the hanging chads in the disputed 2000 election, as the 2001 address delivered a 27.6/4.
Other unions are trying to assess their strength as well. The state of Screen Actors Guild, for instance, is strong for now, but the union is set to strike at the end of June, and many are missing work due to the ongoing writers strike. This week's SAG Awards, however, fared far better than NBC's Golden Globes, which devolved into a depressing press conference, with ratings falling by nearly three-fourths.
The SAG Awards showed just how much celebrities help ratings, garnering a combined TBS/TNT 2.2/6 rating and share in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic. That was up 13% on TBS and 9% on TNT, reflecting the 1.2% increase in tickets sold and 4.9% bump in box office that made 2007 the second straight growth year, after Hollywood was humbled with decreases in tickets sold from 2003 to 2005. This year the total will be hard-pressed to grow again, however, as the multi-month labor dispute inevitably will be felt on the big screen as well as the small screen.
Fate of scripted series
There was no NFL this week for the first time since September, which combined with fewer scripted series and the ongoing erosion of Fox's "American Idol" to depress ratings. And it doesn't look like the scripted series will be back again soon. The state of the Writers Guild of America seems anything but certain, with talks still stalled, even after the Directors Guild of America formulated a film and TV template by settling their dispute with relatively little acrimony.
As importantly, this week's negotiations over who controls the remote control in Nielsen households offered little encouraging news for writers, as nonscripted reality TV shows took up four of the top 10 spots this week. Per usual, "American Idol" was Nos. 1 and 2, despite Tuesday's 9.8/26, down 7% from last week and 22% from last year's week three, and Wednesday's 8.9/24, which slipped 8% and 31% compared with last year. Fourth place went to post-"Idol" breakout hit "Moment of Truth" (7.3/19), while ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" was seventh, with a 4.8/12. NBC's "American Gladiators" just missed the top 10, with an 11th-place 3.5/10.
But six scripted shows still had pull with the public, which may help the guild at the bargaining table. Three of them ran just last night, as ABC, which has been lost without new episodes of "Grey's Anatomy," found itself with the fifth, sixth and eighth slots. Nielsen's "Fast Affiliate Ratings" reported a 6.7/16 for the season premiere of "Lost," a 4.9/13 for the recap show "Lost: Past, Present and Future" and a 4.2/11 for program premiere "Eli Stone."
What to do without football
Those dramas were joined by comedies for -- and about -- guys, as 12th-place "Two and a Half Men" on CBS (3.3/9) nearly cracked the top 10, and Fox made the cut with its answers to football withdrawal -- "Family Guy" (ninth, 3.7/9) and "The Simpsons" (10th, 3.6/9).
Of course, this Sunday's Super Bowl will provide media methadone for those football addicts, but scripted-series withdrawal soon will set in, as few new shows will be available.
But it's telling that, despite the ongoing acrimony on both sides of the picket line (as well as this week's announcements that far fewer pilots will fly during development season), Fox didn't choose TV's most potent promotional platform -- the post-Super-Bowl timeslot -- to launch a strike-resistant reality show. Rather, it too recognized the power of the pen, choosing the well-written "House," which finished third this week with a 7.9/19.
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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 Nielsen Live numbers. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of live-plus-three commercial ratings.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.