MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- President Bush's plan to unclog runway traffic for the holidays may be appreciated by millions of Thanksgiving travelers. But it hardly evoked the romance of over the hills and through the woods to grandmother's house -- although that Currier and Ives image is probably imaginary, anyway. What's real is that nearly everyone has their own version of hearth and home, let alone their own definition of family.
Some newly defined families were reflected in this week's top 10 network TV programs. Traditional families used to be a staple of prime time, but the days of "Father Knows Best" are long gone. Today's TV dads are typified more by the animated antics of Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin on Fox's "The Simpsons" (ranked 12th this week with a 4.7/12 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic) and "Family Guy" (eighth, 4.9/11).
Moms have also undergone a TV transformation. Out is June Cleaver. In is cleavage on ABC's sexy soap "Desperate Housewives," which finished in a third-place tie with a 6.4/15, and dysfunction on Sunday sibling "Brothers and Sisters" (13th, 4.6/12).
But with marriage and children starting ever later in life, many create surrogate families at work. Such is the case with TV's top draw, drama "Grey's Anatomy" (8.1/18, according to last night's "Fast Affiliate Ratings," which are subject to change) on ABC, in which surgeons act like bi-polar squabbling siblings. Conversely, those who find the "workplace as family unit" just more cynical corporate-speak are finding the subversive "The Office" sublime, as the NBC sitcom just missed the top 10 last night, finishing 11th with a 4.8/11. And while Fox's hit "House" may not seem so homespun, the acerbic surgeon is playing well in American households. His demo delivery is strong, too, as this week "House" delivered a fifth place 6.2/15.
Other "workplace families" prominent in prime time are teams of detectives who often investigate families that have been torn apart by violence. CBS's "CSI" was the genesis of much of the forensic frenzy that has often defined the decade's TV and last night it delivered a 6.4/15 in the "Fast Affiliate" numbers, which currently places it in a third-place tie.
And it's supposed to be play, not work, that brings people together on CBS's other Thursday night winner, "Survivor" (ninth with a 4.8/13), but this game is set up not to create a family unit; it literally goes tribal in its early episodes, only to become reflective of social (or game-show) Darwinism.
Thanksgiving, of course, is supposed to be the opposite of "Survivor's" ethos and is one of the most traditional holidays. Many gathering families, regardless of how untraditional they are, will watch some football this Thursday. That's in keeping with this fall season so far, as the top 10 has been dominated by the NFL. This week was no exception, with NBC's "Sunday Night Football" the No. 2 show on network TV this week, delivering a 6.6/17. And No. 6 according to Nielsen's methodology was a brief "NFL Sunday Post-Gun" on Fox, which huddled a 5.5/16.
Those gathered around the table, recounting their blessings, may feel particularly compelled to appreciate the roof over their heads, especially during these days of sub-prime mortgage meltdown. Tapping into this zeitgeist is one of TV's more remarkable success stories, ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which builds homes -- and, more important, hopes -- as its blueprint for success. It continued to do well by doing good, building a 5.1/13 demo rating for a seventh-place finish. And if the Thanksgiving families can still stand each other by Monday, they can opt for some more all-family entertainment, such as ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," which was once again in this week's top 10 in 10th-place with a 4.8/12.
Sadly, some families just don't get along. But they do learn to live together, which is what will need to happen to the broken family that is the entertainment industry if it ever hopes to move from striking to scripting. Some family gestures broke the tension, however, such as David Letterman offering to pay his staff out of his own pocket for the rest of the year. But this contrasted with the casting of fellow talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres as the strike's black sheep for crossing the picket line and continuing chatting.
Officially, week two showed neither side weakening, but off-the-record comments from several sources this morning indicate late-night shows may be the first to return and some prominent hosts may cross the line. This could create family fireworks within the tight-knit entertainment industry, as to date the union brotherhood from the Actors Guild, whose contract comes up next, has been strong. Many of the strikingly good-looking stars have been striking, which has made the issue more relatable to the public and helped the WGA in the public-relations battle. Two new polls from Pepperdine and Survey USA report support ranging from 64% to 69% for the pens vs. 4% to 8% for the producers, who to much of the public must appear as rich, but distant, parents.
But who knows? Maybe the holiday, with its concurrent secular and sacred subtext will perform its traditional role of making everyone involved thankful. After all, the entertainment industry is supposed to be creating, not destroying, and it's still one of the great American industries with worldwide demand (and revenue). So maybe right after families gather to break bread (and turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and ...) the two sides will do the same and solve the key issues.
OK, admittedly that sounds more like a Christmas or "a very special episode" of a prime-time program. But this is the season of hope, isn't it?
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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.