MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- The day started well enough for CNBC, with live footage of billionaire bilker Bernie Madoff.
It didn't end so well for the financial-news network -- or its parent, NBC, which had hoped that the return of "E.R." stars George Clooney and Julianna Margulies would be the pairing that had people buzzing Thursday night (let alone Friday morning).
Instead, it was the cable coupling of Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and CNBC's "Mad Money" host, Jim Cramer, who bookended the booked Madoff by making off with the one thing Madoff couldn't steal: the pop-culture spotlight. Cramer's comeuppance at the hands of "The Daily Show's" Stewart was "Must-See TV" the way "E.R." was when Clooney -- and "E.R." -- jumped from the cover of TVWeek to the cover of Newsweek.
Ratings aren't yet available for CNBC's Madoff coverage or Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," but both offered a rare, albeit brief, cultural catharsis for a nation reeling from the rapid economic meltdown. Sure, neither will raise anyone's 401(k), but they may have raised spirits (let alone ratings) as Madoff and Cramer, two "Masters of the Universe," were laid low.
Ratings are available for "E.R." (albeit fast-affiliate ones, with final live-plus-same-day data to be released this afternoon), and it tied a season high, with a 3.9/11 rating and share in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic. That beat this generation's version of a Thursday 10 p.m. medical drama, "Private Practice" (3.4/9), which has fallen 40% since it peaked last month by intertwining story lines with "Grey's Anatomy." CBS's "Eleventh Hour," which has a medical plotline as well, fell to third with a 2.8/7, which was 93% of its normal average.
"Grey's" (4.9/12) itself was way down, off 18% from its original-episode average but triple last week's rerun rating. Then again, so was time-slot rival "CSI" (4.2/10), the CBS police procedural that reported 21% of its regular viewers missing. It was the same story on the CW, as drama "Supernatural" (1.1/3) was 21% below normal.
It wasn't just dramas but sitcoms and reality, too. NBC's "The Office" (4.0/10) and "30 Rock" (3.3/8) tumbled 11% and 6%, respectively, from their original-episode levels. And Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" cooled down 12% to a 3.5/9.
Thursday's first hour of prime time had similar counterprogramming -- and similar results. Dramas on Fox ("Bones," 2.8/8), ABC ("Ugly Betty," 2.1/6) and the CW ("Smallville," 1.6/5) fell 7%, 16% and 6%, respectively. NBC sitcoms slipped as well, with "My Name Is Earl" and the series finale of "Kath and Kim" both delivering a 1.7/5, drops of 35% and 23%, respectively. CBS's reality show "Survivor" performed best, but it, too, dropped, though by a scant 2% to a 4.1/12.
CBS won with a 3.7/10, followed by ABC (3.5/9). The CW finished fifth, with a 1.3/4.
Final ratings will reveal not only how many watched last night's "Daily Show" but also if the third-place 3.1/8 tie is broken between Fox and NBC. Even if Fox pulls out ahead, NBC will be the winner. Because even if one of its stars fell before a live audience, rival Jon Stewart provided the playbook on how to build buzz -- and audiences -- all week by seizing the news narrative. It's a lesson that may come in handy when the network's own satirist, Jay Leno, begins his prime-time talk show next fall.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: Looking for a reason to check out CBS's successful series "Ghost Whisperer"? It's Friday the 13th, so you're allowed.
Saturday: The practical personal-finance program "The Suze Orman Show" may not be as sexy as the get-rich-quick "Mad Money," but it's a better time than ever for CNBC to start emphasizing the fundamentals, not just the fun.
Sunday: With so many political, business and media figures laid low by the financial crisis, the timing may not be best for "Kings," NBC's latest attempt at big miniseries ratings. But compared to "the Donald" that follows on "Celebrity Apprentice," it's a laudable attempt at elevating the quality of NBC's Sunday schedule.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Sunday's selection show, which announces the pairings for the NCAA basketball tournament, tips off March Madness, just one of the many factors that make "March sweeps" an aberration.
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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.