MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Viewing parties (and some slumber-parties) are planned tonight across America, with tweens atwitter about Walt Disney's debut of "High School Musical 2." The follow-up to the surprise smash is for kids just a bit too young and innocent to run to MTV's "The Hills" -- another recent promising premiere, which reported a 44% jump in viewers aged 12-34 from last year -- in what has become a seminal summer of cultural and commercial breakthroughs on cable.
Similar to the midnight disorder at Borders and Barnes & Noble's bookstores when the last of the "Harry Potter" oeuvre was presented, the culture industry has hit upon a formula that concurrently reassures parents while allowing children to not feel geeky or gawky about not yet being ready to see "Saw 3" or play "Grand Theft Auto 4."
Network TV aspires to inspire the same passion as "Harry" or "High School," but children embrace the Big Four about as much as they do summer school. To be sure, because of network TV's sheer size, some of its tween ratings certainly rival or top "High School Musical 2." But based on the current schedule it's hard to imagine tween girls agog over any of the programs in this week's top 10.
Your grandparent's business model
Much of this is due to network TV's business model, in which reality fare and reruns rule during the summer. This may be a pattern familiar to parents -- or grandparents -- but tech-savvy tweens are way beyond this programming environment, watching what they want, when they want. This has especially hurt the network with the most affinity for tweens, the CW, which has struggled with low ratings. (Hope springs eternal: The network will try to break this summer's fall in the autumn, with shows such as "Gossip Girl," "Wild at Heart" and "Aliens in America.")
The demographic disconnect between tweens and network TV this summer is as much cultural as it is commercial. The difference seems to be twofold: First, kids want to discover and "own" their cultural markers first, and then bring their folks along. And secondly, tweens seem to respond with particular passion to stories with them at the epicenter trying to negotiate with the authority figures around them, be it in the halls of Harry Potter's Hogwarts or in Disney's fictional high school.
This disconnect isn't due to lack of effort from the networks, which have tried some all-family reality shows, with some even resembling high school itself. NBC's "The Singing Bee," for instance, which, with a 3.0/9 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, tied for third in this week's top 10, is designed to be akin to a spelling bee -- a universal experience for tweens. And Fox's two-step of "So You Think You Can Dance?" -- which finished second and sixth for its final and penultimate episodes with a 3.5/11 in last night's Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings" and a 2.8/9 on Wednesday -- still has the amateur charm of a talent show. Less charming (as would be any program with Jerry Springer as host), but no less successful this summer, is NBC's "America's Got Talent," which finished fifth with a 2.9/10. Of course, the nasty, negative side of high school -- cliques and catty cut-downs -- is also prominent in prime time with CBS's "Big Brother," with two episodes in the top 10: Last night's version, according to the "Fast Affiliate" ratings, was tied with Tuesday's edition for ninth with a 2.7/8 ratings and share.
Tween themes, adult tone
Despite settings familiar to tweens, the TV tonality for all these shows is still adult, with the kids and young adults singing, dancing or displaying other talents still in a construct of being judged by star hosts, as opposed to the focus being on actors like Daniel Radcliffe ("Harry Potter") or Zac Efron ("High School"). This is even more apparent in "Hell's Kitchen" on Fox, which was this week's top show, delivering a 4.0/11, or in a CBS show that, ironically, stars a tween (even though he's only a "half"), Angus T. Jones of "Two and a Half Men," which placed seventh with a 2.8/8.
The one partial exception to the exceptional set of circumstances that made "Harry Potter" and "High School Musical" part of a unique cultural movement is Fox's "Family Guy." While certainly not a sweet ease into adolescence, it is an example of pop culture discovered -- or in its case, rediscovered -- by young adults, as video rentals brought the satirical animated sitcom back to network TV. Its end-of-summer surge continued this week, with two episodes again cracking the top 10: Sunday's 9:00 and 9:30 versions tied for third and ninth with a 3.0/9 and a 2.7/8, respectively.
Indeed, soon it will truly be end of summer, as tweens return to school and the networks return to fresh fare with a new season. It will be worth watching what lessons the broadcasters took from an often sleepy summer of 2007, and if there will be any programs worthy of slumber parties.
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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.