MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- It was a tough week for appointment TV.
Tough guy Tony Soprano was in the one show viewers uncluttered their calendars for, but HBO's "The Sopranos" had an ending that left some finished with the very concept of loyal viewing.
And those shows that are television traditions, like the NBA Finals on ABC and the Tony Awards on CBS, somehow got left off many viewers' schedules.
In HBO's case, the controversy over how the dark drama faded to black became a red-hot topic, passionately debated among audiences, critics, fellow writers and even editorialists -- exactly the kind of passion producers like David Chase and every network needs to cultivate in a word full of cultural clutter. Indeed, this passion -- even when much of it is negative -- takes on TV's biggest challenge: not rival networks, but apathy.
Sure, many complained about the lack of dramatic dénouement, having been led to believe in the "big bang" theory, which in this case would have been Tony going out with or in a hale of bullets. But the big bang for the mafia drama was actually the mob in front of their sets, as the 4.4/12 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic would qualify for the top-ranked program of the network week, a remarkable achievement for a pay service with just one-third of broadcast's penetration.
This should have been the week when the NBA Finals grabbed pop culture by the lapels and made Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James a household name. But instead, the household and demo ratings are on track to be the lowest ever, with games one through three down 28% from last year, averaging a 3.6/11. (Last night's Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings" for Game 4 was 3.4/10 from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. eastern time, which if the rating holds up, is good for a fifth-place tie. But compared to last year's game four full-game delivery of 4.6/15 or of the deciding game six turnout of a 6.4/19, it's a significant slip.)
Of course, compared to summer series, games two and three were also good enough to make the top ten (game three was third with a 3.8/12 and game two was tied for fifth with a 3.4/10) but the cavalier response to Cleveland and San Antonio follows a pattern of big events getting smaller, including depressed demographic delivery for nearly every sport beyond baseball and football, as final ratings from last week's Stanley Cup finals on NBC didn't score either, with a 38% drop from last year.
And it's not just sports ratings: The athletes who simultaneously sing, dance and act on Broadway were honored Sunday on CBS's Tony Awards (1.1/3), but the 19% audience erosion from last year was the equivalent of off-Broadway -- still a highly entertaining and professional production, but in front of a much smaller audience.
The shows -- or at least the genre -- that has become summer stock for the networks is reality, and several series made it into the top ten, including Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance?" (the week's first- and sixth-ranked shows with a 4.0/12 on Thursday and 3.2/11 on Wednesday), "Hell's Kitchen" (ranked second with a 3.9/11) and "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?" (ranked eighth with a 3.1/11 in last night's "Fast Affiliate Ratings"). NBC's "America's Got Talent" also did well (finishing fourth with a 3.7/12), and the network's "Last Comic Standing" had a debut that was down 22% but still nabbed ninth place with a 2.8/8.
A rerun of CBS's "CSI: Miami" (2.7/8) rounded out the last spot in this week's top ten.
Next week the summer TV equivalent of "Let's put on a show!" will have the stage to itself, as the reality contests won't be challenged by appointment television. But to truly be successful, a summer series needs to become an appointment in its own right, working its way onto viewers' summer schedules in an attempt to work its way onto a network's fall slate.
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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. 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.