Fame Game Boils Down to Who's a Celebrity This Week

Rash Report: Top 10 Shows for the Week of July 27

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- The intersection of pop culture and politics has been busy this campaign season. "Obama Girl" was a YouTube sensation. And the women of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, had Sen. Hillary Clinton's back: Poehler played the New York senator as beleaguered and belittled by the press in a skit that changed the news narrative, and Fey's "Weekend Update" riff on why people rip into Clinton became a battle cry for some of her supporters. As for Sen. Barack Obama, he won the Oprah primary, which may have been more important that the Oklahoma one.
Sen. John McCain negative Obama ad.

So while it may have startled some, it shouldn't be surprising that this week two other pop personalities popped into the political picture, albeit unwittingly: Paris Hilton and Britney Spears were featured in a montage of images alongside Obama in an ad from his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, which stated, "He's the biggest celebrity in the world. But is he ready to lead?"

Ads become the news
The negative ad not only played in paid media, but was given a free ride of non-paid media after it led the nightly newscasts.

The political punditocracy seems split on if the ad will backfire on McCain, or back him up as he attacks Obama not on a perceived political weakness, but his strength of soaring rhetoric and adoring crowds.

Ultimately, of course, it's up to the voters if being "the biggest celebrity in the world" is a good or bad thing.

But if it's up to viewers, they've already decided: It's a good thing to be a celebrity. And they want in.

How else could ABC get contestants to wallow in the mud of "Wipeout" as the hosts laugh at, not with, them? This is just one of the examples of how the cult of the amateur has crashed the celebrity gates and made it into the public's consciousness, a trend easily visible in this week's list of top 10 shows in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic. "Wipeout" was the second-highest-rated show of the week, delivering a 3.6/11 rating and share.

Searching for talent
It was topped only by the celebrity wannabes on NBC's "America's Got Talent" (3.7/10), the "Star Search" for these times. They were matched by Fox's fame-seekers on "So You Think You Can Dance," which finished third with a 3.0/8 on Wednesday and fifth with a 2.8/9 in Thursday night's Nielsen fast-affiliate ratings.

And this quest to be best -- or at least get noticed -- is seemingly a worldwide phenomenon, as despite this week's breakdown in the World Trade Organization talks, reality-show concepts cross borders with ease. "I Survived a Japanese Game Show" was ninth with a 2.3/6. And Europeans were watching "Big Brother" before it was a big hit on CBS (Thursday night's episode delivered an eighth-place 2.3/8, while Tuesday's was 10th with a 2.2/6).

Reality ruled beyond the top 10 as well, both in total hours and ratings. Through Wednesday night's schedule, some form of reality TV accounted for 33 programs, with dramas registering 23, sitcoms 12 and sports two telecasts.

The highest-rated Nielsen category, "participation variety," had an average 1.8/5, while the drama average was a 1.2/4, and sitcoms were just behind with a 1.1/4. Making this week's top 10 list in the last two categories were two sitcom reruns, CBS's "Two and a Half Men," fourth with a 2.9/8, and "The New Adventures of Old Christine,"' which posted a 2.5/7, along with a rerun of Fox's drama "House," which tied with "Old Christine" for sixth.

Gender gap not limited to politics
Maybe McCain is trying to shore up his base, particularly with male voters. The latest Gallup poll indicates the gender gap is close to a gulf: Men favor war hero McCain by a 46% to 42% margin, while women favor the eloquent Obama by 52% to 42%. These distinct differences in gender play out in genre preference as well: Women 18-49 ratings were an average 58% higher than men 18-49 for the celebrity-seeking reality shows, which may have made McCain's "celebrity" shot more effective with some of his key constituents.

Beyond Britney and Paris was Berlin, the backdrop of Obama's speech to "fellow citizens of the world." Previous presidents have used the historic city for iconic moments like John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" and Ronald Reagan's "Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev" speeches. But many conservative commentators didn't share the adulation expressed by the crowd, and McCain notably went to a German restaurant in Ohio, appealing to Midwestern values while Obama talked about the Mideast and the need for international institutions.

One of those international institutions will take center stage on the small screen next week as the Olympics begin in Beijing. And at least for a fortnight, TV's celebrity and wannabe culture will yield to the no-names with big talent who sometimes become famous the old-fashioned way: achievement.

But once again, expect politics to pop up. Not only regarding China's record on Tibet, Darfur, human rights and internet rights, but because Obama gets his turn to divert the debate with a political ad, as his campaign made a well-publicized $5 million Olympics media buy.

Friday: There's nothing, well, flashy about "Flashpoint," CBS's SWAT team drama. But it offers the only original episode of a scripted series on Friday night.
Saturday: TCM's "The Essentials" shows a quadruple feature of the essential comedian -- and movie star -- Charlie Chaplin, in "Modern Times," "The Great Dictator," "Monsieur Verdoux" and "Limelight."
Sunday: Sure, the regulars will only play a few snaps. And it's early August. But football is back! Indianapolis plays Washington in the first Sunday Night Football game of the season.

The NFL is the league that defies ratings gravity, so watch for a strong showing for a meaningless exhibition football game.

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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 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.
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