MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- For the second straight Thursday, ratings aren't yet available for TV's biggest event. But just like last week's cable confrontation between an angry Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" and a meek Jim Cramer of "Mad Money," the talk wasn't about a scripted series in prime time but about an unscripted talk show in late night, as Barack Obama set a presidential precedent by appearing on NBC's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
"Tonight Show" ratings will surely spike, (as early ratings from Nielsen already indicate it could be the highest since a 2005 tribute to Johnny Carson), which should hearten NBC after the tough time its prime time has had this season. Indeed, last night was a template for how NBC hopes Leno can build buzz with big guest "gets." It could have used the help in prime time last night, as even the network's critically honored lineup underdelivered its original-episode season average. NBC's sitcoms and 'E.R.' finished fourth overall, with a 3.0/8 rating and share in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic. (All numbers based on Nielsen fast-affiliate data, with final live-plus-same-day data available late today.)
First-run (and first-rate) sitcoms "My Name Is Earl" (2.4/8), "The Office" (3.9/10) and "30 Rock" (3.2/8) were 8%, 13% and 6%, respectively, off their original-episode averages. (An "Office" repeat at 8:30 p.m. delivered a 2.0/6.) Ironically, the only program to show a slight increase was the soon-to-end "E.R." (3.3/9), which will cede its time slot to Jay Leno next season.
Fox finished just ahead of NBC, with a third-place 3.1/9, as "Bones" (3.0/9) hit its season average but "Hell's Kitchen" (3.3/8), which has often had an "American Idol" lead-in, cooled off 18%.
The CW's "Smallville" (1.4/4) and "Supernatural" (1.2/3) slipped a similar 18% and 15%, respectively, as the network finished fifth, with an overall 1.3/4.
All three networks lost to CBS and ABC, whose lineup probably made TV's gender gap a gender gulf. ABC's female-focused dramas "Ugly Betty" (2.1/6), "Grey's Anatomy" (4.9/12) and "Private Practice" (3.6/10) skidded 16%, 17% and 10%, respectively, from their original-episode averages.
Some of that could have been due to the more male-focused March Madness on CBS, as the tipoff of the annual NCAA basketball tournament often results in upsets in the Nielsen ratings, let alone the basketball brackets. Final live-plus-same-day data released later will indicate if the 12% jump in hoop viewing holds, but last Sunday's half-decade high for the "NCAA Selection Show" indicated interest is high for this year's tourney.
Fittingly, the nail-biting drama on ABC (will "Grey's Anatomy's" Izzy come back from cancer?) and CBS (would Illinois come back against Western Kentucky?) resulted in a first-place 3.5/10 tie.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: Sci-Fi's "Battlestar Gallactica," a great exception to the normal rule of not remaking TV shows, has its series finale.
Saturday: Keep the hoop hysteria as long as you can, especially against Friday-night network prime time.
Sunday: Political scientists and pop-culture vultures will look for how differently the president presents himself on CBS's more formal "60 Minutes" than he did in his casual chat with Jay Leno.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Any sign of Sunday stabilization for NBC after last week's low ratings for highly ambitious "Kings" and whether "Celebrity Apprentice" will continue the cultural (let alone commercial) erosion of the Trump brand.
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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.