Football Sacks Singing

Rash Report: Top 10 Dominated by NFL, American Idol

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- A quick glance at the screen this week may have led some viewers to think they were watching that '70s show. No, not the former Fox hit. Rather, the eerie echoes in news and entertainment programming from the Carter era, a period the president himself dubbed "malaise."
'American Idol' began its eighth season this week.
'American Idol' began its eighth season this week. Credit: Fox

Stagflation, higher oil prices and unemployment, international intrigue in Iran -- all could have been reported by Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and Harry Reasoner, instead of Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson, with film of the worried pate of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke today's version of Carter-appointee Paul Volcker.

Escapist entertainment
Even escapist entertainment felt familiar. Fox's "American Idol" began its eighth season this week, but it's really two seasons in one, as the first month takes its cultural cues from 1976's "The Gong Show," in which the whole point of the show was to be so bad it was good (TV, at least). Only instead of a giggling Chuck Barris unable to keep a straight face, a grimacing Simon Cowell can't seem to crack a smile, as changing times have led to a show where viewers are encouraged to laugh at contestants instead of with them.

So far there are a few less viewers laughing this season as the first two episodes had only 83% and 78% of ad-centric adult 18-49 viewers. Sure, Tuesday's 12.5/31 and Wednesday's 11.4/29 rating and share were still good for third and fourth for the week. And two episodes do not a season make. But, still, it isn't a good sign for Fox that the erosion is taking place amidst a writers strike (although it is in keeping with the life cycle of hit shows, which often begin to decline after around five seasons).

And ninth-place "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition's" (5.3/12) foundation dates back to the disco era as well, as the dual dynamics of 1979's debut of PBS's "This Old House" provided the essential ingredients of construction and emotion that has made Ty Pennington this generation's Bob Vila.

Football flashback
The TV flashback was seen in football as well, as fans have followed New England Patriots games to see if the team can replicate the 1972 perfect season of the Miami Dolphins. But the Patriots' act already approximates the Carter-era Pittsburgh Steelers, who won four Super Bowl trophies in seven years, a feat the Patriots will accomplish if they continue unbeaten.

The NFL itself is undefeated, at least in terms of representation in the Nielsen top 10, and once again several pre-games, post-games and actual games accounted for six slots in this week's list. Sure, some were just football fragments, but according to how the Nielsen referees call it, Fox's "NFC Playoff Post-Gun" and "Post-Game" on Sunday were the top two programs with a 16.1/40 and 12.7/32, respectively. And Saturday wasn't too bad for Fox either, as the "Post-gun" was sixth with a 8.2/27 and the "Post-game" was tenth with a 5.1/17.

Of course, all these posts aren't possible without an actual game, and one prime-time matchup did make it, CBS's telecast of the Patriots game on Saturday night, which delivered a fifth-place 11.3/32 (the "pre-kick" was seventh with an 8.1/25).

From 'Network' to 'Terminator'
The political transformation that gave way from President Carter's "malaise" to President Reagan's "morning again in America" also yielded a pop culture shift, as navel-gazing '70s cinema like "Network" gave way to movie machismo, like 1984's "The Terminator" (and also gave rise to another prominent politician, Arnold Schwarzenegger). And, fitting for an election season that may elect the nation's first female president, this week Arnold's cinema cyborg gives way to a more maternal and feminine storyline. Sunday's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" on Fox was big box office on the small screen for its program premiere, placing eighth with a 7.1/17 (and aided in part by the high testosterone of an NFL playoff game). But unlike the big screen, which saw the "Terminator Two" sequel rise to the top of the 1991 box office after the original placed 21st, episode two's audience on Monday night was almost halved, delivering a 3.7/9.

As for the rest of this season, regardless if the Writers Guild of America takes direction from the Directors Guild of America and inks a similar pact with the producers to end the writers strike, most original scripted series are, for all intents and purposes, over.

How viewers react next season after a schedule replete with repeats and reality will depend -- ironically -- on the two iconic lines from the Carter-era "Network" and the Reagan-era "Terminator." Like Arnold, will they say "I'll be back?" Or will they channel the angry anchorman Howard Beale and scream "I'm mad as Hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore?"

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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. In order to report ratings on a timely basis, all the ratings listed here reflect a Nielsen Live number. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of a commercial minute, live-plus-3 viewing basis.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.
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