MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- At deadline, Nielsen ratings aren't available for "Mad Men," AMC's homage to advertising's good old days of three TV networks and three-martini lunches. But based on last night's near pitch-perfect pilot, the ad men of "Mad Men" probably wouldn't care, as their disregard for data was even more retro than the skinny ties, thick smoke and fat-cat clients. But the bygone Mad Men's gut-feel intuition has yielded to today's cold-calculus of Excel spreadsheets and focus-group social science.
Certainly, this has increased confidence in investing in media, but it's a world the show's ad men (or Gregory Peck's account executive in the same era's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit") wouldn't recognize. Three networks have given way 300 -– and beyond. And while inexpensive programming (and often cheap CPMs) used to typify cable TV, now, it's the broadcast networks that have heard the siren song of low costs in hope for high ratings, as once the broadcasters finish finals week in late May it's time for summer break, when reality rules over non-scripted fare. Cable, conversely, buckles down during summertime with new scripted series, exemplified by shows just like "Mad Men." And in the process, cable has occasionally schooled the networks on how to develop new hits even during periods of high temperatures and low viewing levels.
Quality equal to network
Both of these trends have played out recently, as ratings records have been set for TBS's "House of Payne" and "The Bill Engvall Show" as well as TNT's "The Closer" and Lifetime's "Army Wives," cable sitcoms and dramas that are the creative (and increasingly quantitative) equal of network.
Indeed, some of cable's dark dramas are in stark contrast to this summer's ratings for network dramas, as the repeating pattern of reruns performing poorly continued, with only two scripted series -- NBC's "Law and Order: SVU" and CBS's "CSI: Miami" -- cracking the top 10, delivering a 2.8/8 and 2.5/7 rating and share, respectively, in the ad-centric adult 18-to-49 demographic, which would place "SVU" seventh and "CSI: Miami" 10th for the week.(The top 10 this week is based on the period of July 15-18, due to a delay by Nielsen today in releasing ratings for July 19.)
The rest of the top 10 included shows whose antecedents seem to come from the nascent days of cable: The TV Food Network (now just The Food Network to reflect today's multimedia platforms) warmed up an audience now ripe for Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" (3.7/11 and the top-rated show this week). And viewers who "wanted their MTV" in the '80s are apparently having a hard time remembering what all the fuss was about, as witnessed by NBC's "The Singing Bee" and Fox's "Don't Forget the Lyrics," which finished second and eighth with a 3.5/10 and 2.7/8, respectively.
Concurrent with the dawn of music videos, a once-new USA Network filled program time with "Dance Party USA." A generation later, Fox features two nights of "So You Think You Can Dance," with Wednesday's 2.8/10 good for sixth. (Last night's version may also make the top 10, but Thursday's "Fast Affiliate Ratings" have been delayed.)
Of course, some programs are so reflective of human nature that they transcend time: Laughing along with -- or at -- social awkwardness on CBS's "Candid Camera" was already a dozen years old by the 1960's of "Mad Men." The latest iteration, this week's debut of ABC's "Just for Laughs," apparently created just that, bringing smiles to viewers and to the network by placing two episodes in the top 10, a fourth place 2.9/10 and a ninth place 2.6/9. And "Let's put on a show!" has shown up in network TV since The DuMont network debuted "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour" a half century ago. This summer's version, NBC's "America's Got Talent," came in third with a 3.0/10.
And, finally, human nature may not have changed much, but technology has: Men are still on the prowl, and the sexism and "Mad Men" misogyny is startling by today's standards and diminishes Don Draper, the show's protagonist. Still, the drama's leering lure of cocktails looks alluring compared to the desperate, dangerous internet predators that NBC's "Dateline" ensnared at the newsmagazine locked up fifth place with a 2.9/9.
Previews for next week's "Mad Men" show Don Draper resisting working on the marketing of a young, dynamic Navy man who's a can't-miss to be president in 1960. JFK? No, Richard Nixon. In a week that's seen Sen. McCain's money meltdown and the Obama Girl viral video more effective than any campaign spot, it's oddly reassuring that the problems of politics -- both electoral and within ad agencies -- remains constant.
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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.