MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- No matter which side one picks on the picket line, there was both encouraging and discouraging news from this week's list of top 10 telecasts in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic.
Those who ascribe to scribes being the cultural component that most makes prime-time TV the country's favorite diversion -- and thus deserving of a better guild contract -- could be supported by several scripted series making the top 10. Indeed, nearly all of these shows created stars through dynamic dialogue, as opposed to well-known stars shining brighter than the writing.
From relative unknowns to big stars
Fox's "House," for example, has a distinctly drawn point of view that has made a previously obscure Englishman, Hugh Laurie, an American star. This week's episode confirmed that the medical drama is one of TV's biggest hits, with a third-place 6.8/17 rating and share. And it was the prolific pens of Marc Cherry, Shonda Rhimes and Anthony Zuiker that has made stars of many, including Eva Longoria of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" (seventh, 6.2/14), Ellen Pompeo of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" (7.9/18 from 9-10 p.m. Eastern, according to Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings" from last night, which if they hold would make "Grey's" No. 2), William Peterson of CBS's "CSI" (6.4/15 from 9-10 p.m. last night, good for fifth) and Anthony LaPaglia of the network's "Without a Trace" (sixth with a 6.3/17).
And the stars of Fox's "Simpsons" (eighth, 5.4/13) and "Family Guy" (two episodes just missed the top 10, tying for 11th with a 4.9/11) are, of course, literally and figuratively animated from the mind and pen of Matt Groening and Seth MacFarlane.
Conversely, the producers being struck may find striking evidence in this week's list that writers are actually more vulnerable than valuable, as unscripted shows showed up prominently in prime time.
The power of football
The top network "show," which is what Nielsen calls even a five minute wrap-up, was CBS's NFL "Post-gun" (10.4/28) after the New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts game, which itself was the highest-rated telecast of the entire new TV season and the most watched regular season Sunday afternoon game in a generation. The "Post-gun" ran into a CBS "60 Minutes" story about weapons of mass destruction, or in this case distraction, as dogged correspondent Bob Simon investigated the case of "Curveball," the goofball Iraqi fraud who was the sole source of much of the CIA's intelligence supporting the war in Iraq. The 4.8/12 was good for an unusually high 14th place and showed the power of another kind or writing -- journalism -- as well as how a promotional platform like the NFL can bring new life into a near 40-year-old program featuring octogenarians among its core correspondents.
This NFL power was also on display in the fourth highest-rated show of the week, NBC's "Sunday Night Football," which delivered a 6.6/17, which was preceded by NBC's "Pre-Kick," which was short in length but long on ratings with a 10th-place 5.0/13.
Reality shows have already reduced writers' impact, if not their income, and figure to have more prime-time prominence than ever if the strike isn't settled soon. Three just missed the top 10, including CBS's "Survivor" (13th, 4.8/13) as well as ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and the Monday edition of "Dancing with the Stars," which tied for 15th with a 4.5/11. And reality of a different sort -- an awards show -- was rewarded with ninth place as the original version of music TV, ABC's "Country Music Awards," was wanted by 5.3/14.
More than a Hail Mary pass
To be sure, this is only one week and there are few, if any more "Games of the Century" on the schedule (at least until the Pats and Colts meet in the AFC Championship Game). But a season-to-date analysis of average ratings per prime-time genre indicates that the strength of sports isn't just a Hail Mary pass. Rather, it's a methodical drive for adult 18-49 ratings supremacy as the drama of sports has actually been more popular than the scripted dramas that are the crux of the issue in the strike.
Thirty-one sports events have run in prime time season-to-date, with an average demographic delivery of 3.6, which is the highest of any genre. And "Sports Commentaries," as Nielsen calls the pre- and post-games, have had forty-three telecasts (but understandably lower ratings, 2.8). As for the reality shows that will be looked upon to supplant scripted series? There have been a combined 115 telecasts this year, with an average 2.5.
Dramas account for much of the program
So, based on the strength of sports and the competitiveness of reality, it may suggest that the networks are well positioned to weather what could be a long strike. But many of the smart-aleck writers probably got good grades in math, too, and have some of the numbers going their way: Dramas, the decade's defining scripted genre, are on average 16% higher-rated at 2.9, but even more important account for 286 telecasts so far, nearly two and a half times more than reality. And even the struggling sitcom, which continues its search for the seminal scripted comedy to define the decade, still equals reality with an average adult 18-49 rating of 2.5 and is just 10% below reality's total telecasts at 104.
Finally, the picketers pictured on the nightly news all got their jobs for a reason, including plotting a good ending for every drama, and the calendar may be in their favor. Just as their scripted series run out, so too will the highest rated sports; compared to the diamond and gridiron, the hardwood of NBA or NCAA basketball (figuratively and literally) doesn't play in prime time, except for late spring playoffs (and the NHL has had an icy reception even for the Stanley Cup Finals). How this cliffhanger ends is anyone's guess, but as the strike plot thickens, the importance, if not imperative, of scripted series could play into the writers' favor.
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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.