It May Be Halloween This Week, but Networks Should Fear November More

Rash Report: With No Election and No Baseball, Ratings Will Be Challenged

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MINNEAPOLIS ( -- It's Halloween, a holiday dedicated to being scared. But for network TV programmers, it's not Oct. 31, but Nov. 5 that should really be spine-chilling. That's because the day after the election means not only the end of profitable political ads but also the TV devoid of some of the most compelling content so far this year.
'Barack Obama: An American Journey'
'Barack Obama: An American Journey'

This week's top 10 list, for example, has as its highest-rated program the seven-network aggregate for "Barack Obama: An American Journey," which played like the melding of a campaign commercial and a half-hour drama episode.

Nielsen has not delineated demographic distinctions for the ad-centric adult 18-49 target, but overall it delivered 33.5 million viewers in the broadest possible demographic (persons 2-plus), which was 58% of the 57.4 million average for the three presidential debates that ran on 11 networks.

Baseball's soggy exit
November also means Major League Baseball's post-season is over. True, unless one is a Philly fan it was a lackluster and low-rated World Series. But making the top 10 were both the rain-suspended Game 5 on Wednesday, which delivered a third-place 6.2/16 adult 18-49 rating and share, and Game 4, which scored a seventh-place 5.1/13.

Baseball may now go into the hot-stove league until spring training, but football will go on until February, and as usual it blitzed the top 10. Fox's "NFL Sunday Post-Gun" was the second-highest-rated telecast, delivering a 6.2/18 and post-game "The OT" was eighth with a 5.0/15. Cabler ESPN once again showed it can play in the broadcast league, as its "Monday Night Football" just missed the extra point to make the top 10, but came close with an 11th-place 4.6/12.

Of course, some scripted series also made the top 10, but in general their performance is indicative of the challenges network primetime faces with less special programming in November. Last night's "Grey's Anatomy" on ABC, for instance, posted a 5.5/14, according to the Nielsen fast-affiliate ratings, which if they hold would place it fifth. But that's down 14% from its season average. A steeper slide occurred in the same timeslot for CBS's "CSI" (4.7/11), which finished 10th, but was down 22% from its season average. NBC's "The Office" ran at 9 p.m. as well and also made the top 10, finishing 2% above its season average with an ninth-place 4.7/12. Fox's "House" was sixth, even with its season average of 5.4/14.

Losing it
The other drama making the top 10 was ABC's "Desperate Housewives" (fourth, 5.8/13). This was down 9% from its season average, so "Desperate," like most of the others on this week's list, is indicative of the desperate straits many regularly scheduled series find themselves in as November sweeps enter their second week.

An analysis of each network's season-to-date ratings of regularly scheduled series' original episodes (excluding sports and specials) shows ABC's demo average indexing at an 82% rate, which is slightly better than NBC's 81%. Fox fares better at 96%, while corporate cousins CBS and CW are both about even with last year's levels.

To be sure, network prime time is still the media form of fast, vast national reach. But from a programming perspective, the trends are troubling for the new season. Sweeps will end right before Thanksgiving. So unless post-Halloween prime time brings some surprising ratings treats, expect the nets to try some tricks and schedule a significantly different midseason after the holiday season.

Friday: Your front door, as the trick-or-treaters will be more entertaining than anything on TV.
Saturday: It's the last "Saturday Night Live" before the election, and Sen. John McCain may make an appearance, along with host Ben Affleck.
Sunday: Maybe it's not as sweet as "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," but even the sincerity seeking Linus would get a laugh out of Fox's "Treehouse of Horrors," the annual "Simpsons" Halloween special that runs its 19th edition.

The political punch lines have meant a recent ratings rise for "SNL." How will it hold up after Tuesday's vote?

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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population 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
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