MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Network TV got a few treats, but many more tricks this Halloween week. The sweetest treat came from a bittersweet program evoking a simpler time (both in society and in the industry), ABC's annual "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," which rose (unlike Linus' Great Pumpkin) 38% from last year in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic to deliver a 3.6/11 rating and share.
Perhaps the increase was due to parental nostalgia, as Gen Y sits with their Gen X folks, just as Gen X had done as babes in the arms of their boomer moms and dads. Or it could be the recently released biography, "Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis," or PBS's "Good ol' Charles Schulz," the latest in the superb series "American Masters." Both examined the complex man behind the simply drawn strip, which at least this week has once again made "Peanuts" hot (or "Joe Cool," as Snoopy would prefer).
It may have been the writing
But while the recent retrospectives have drawn upon Schulz's artistry, it may really have been the writing that made the "Peanuts" strip and specials so compelling. The words worked on so many levels through the "Peanuts" gang's exploration of the silly, sublime and seriousness that define humanity.
That kind of writing is a rarity in network TV nowadays, as few scripted shows can span generations and capture the demography of a 1967 family room in today's iPod era. And it's even less likely to happen anytime soon, as Halloween's witching hour of midnight brought the expiration of the Writers Guild contract that could haunt the industry in profound ways.
Indeed, the irony of the writers' strike is that while the union's core issues involve compensating scribes based on how people subscribe to TV (broadcast? cable? video iPods? computer screens? Dick Tracy wristwatches?), the real issue is just how few people are tuning in in the first place. The vast majority of new scripted series are struggling, with none in this week's top 10.
To be sure, there are scripted sitcoms and dramas that made the top 10, including shows from each of the big four networks: ABC had "Grey's Anatomy" (once again this week's top show with a 7.8/18 in last night's "Fast Affiliate Ratings"), "Desperate Housewives" (third with a 6.4/15) and "Brothers and Sisters" (4.6/12, good for ninth); CBS saw "CSI" (fifth with a 5.6/13 in last night's "Fast Affiliates") and "Two and a Half Men" make the list, as "Men" tied for 10th (4.5/11) with the men and women of NBC's "The Office." And Fox's "House" was fourth with a 6.2/16. Reportedly, the networks have squirreled enough scripts to last through the holidays, which should placate people watching as well as advertising (in particular those with retail budgets). But, keep in mind, none of these scripted shows are new.
The threat of reality TV
Reality TV represents an even bigger threat to scriptwriters, as editors usurp writers as the most important forces behind the camera and the cult of the amateur is rewarded in front of it with new reality "stars." Even against first-run fare, a third of the top 10 was reality this week, with ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (sixth with a 5.0/13) continuing to display that its most impressive construction job is the show itself. It joined the network's Monday edition of "Dancing With the Stars" (seventh with a 4.9/13) and last night's thriving "Survivor" on CBS, which if the "Fast Affiliate" numbers hold up will finish eighth with a 4.8/13, on the top 10. This representation will surely increase (even if the ratings don't) when the nets rely on reality to scab for scripts.
Adding sports, non-scripted shows were even more represented. Fall football has often been more dramatic than the scripted shows themselves, but this week it was Charlie Brown's favorite sport, baseball, which captured the public's attention, as Fox's coverage of Game Four of the World Series was second with a 7.0/18. (The game four pre-game show just missed with a 12th place 4.4/13 and game three's 4.2/14 almost made it the first Saturday show to make it into the top 10, but ended up 14th.)
Football as metaphor
But football will be back in the top 10 next week, either because of NBC's Sunday Night shootout between the Cowboys and the Eagles or CBS's overrun of this week's Game of the Century between the undefeated New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.
Finally, football also serves as a media metaphor for this week's tricks and treats. In nearly every "Peanuts" special -- including "The Great Pumpkin" -- Lucy always counts on Charlie Brown to try to kick the football. But of course, good ol' Charlie Brown always falls for the trick -- Lucy always pull the ball away at the last second, leaving Chuck flat on his back. In a sense, life may imitate art, as the TV industry will count on viewers to give network TV another try when the strike stops and fresh episodes return. But no one can predict the last panel of this strip, and it could end up the joke's on Lucy -- or in this case, network TV.
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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.