But instead, the season has been a near-death experience for network TV, as the writers strike forced a schedule of scripted series into premature reruns that led to February sweeps ratings falling for nearly every network except Fox, whose success was mostly due to "American Idol," as the series was once again one-two-three in this week's top 10.
Last night's show had great results itself, according to the Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings," which, if they hold, will have it finishing first with a 9.3/24 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, winning its time slot against CBS's 10th-place "Survivor: Micronesia" (4.0/10). Tuesday's "Idol" was second with a 9.2/24, with Wednesday's 8.9/25 completing the trifecta. And Fox used Wednesday's episode to keep viewers squirming while watching those on the hot seats in "Moment of Truth," which finished fourth with a 5.7/15.
One of the highly hyped vampires made his debut Tuesday night (daytime's not so good for his kind) as Fox also used "Idol" to premiere the drama "New Amsterdam," which debuted to a ninth-place 4.2/10. The story is of a committed New York public servant forever finding new life (no, not Sen. Hillary Clinton; her Tuesday reawakening was seen on the Fox News Channel, not Fox); episode two ran last night and delivered a 3.6/9, down 15% to a 15th place tie.
Having lost the time slot to ABC's "Lost" (5.4/13, good for fifth), it's too early to tell if "New Amsterdam" will resuscitate ratings to its debut demo delivery, but it's apparent that the fall season's supernatural (or even unnatural) theme has struggled. On Monday, for instance, the season finale of one such series, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," delivered a 2.9/7, indexing at only 44% of its promising premiere. In relative terms, it wasn't a bad showing, as it ranked 21st. But "Sarah" lost the time slot to another protective mother, Queen Elizabeth, on ABC's "20/20: The Royal Family," which tied for 15th with a 3.6/9.
Indeed, the sub-genre's struggles were chronic even beyond "The Sarah Connor Chronicles." Many of the "live vs. live plus" shows are on TV life support, or at least dormant, such as ABC's critically acclaimed dramedy about death, "Pushing Daisies," which delivered a 2.7/8 for nine airings but won't be back until next fall. TV's other immortal detective, on CBS's campy vampire drama "Moonlight," fared even worse, delivering a 1.9/6 after 17 showings, but is likely to come back due to lower audience expectations on Friday nights. And some shows themselves are most likely dead, such as NBC's "Bionic Woman" (3.2/8 after eight airings) and the time-traveling "Journeyman" (2.3/6 for 12 episodes).
Paying back leads to payoff
Other shows in this week's top 10 suggest that maybe the networks shouldn't have focused on eternal or supernatural life but on life itself -- or at least living fully. ABC has been particularly ahead of the curve in recognizing how to inspire viewers with reality series such as "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which continued building audiences (and homes), this week delivering a seventh-place 4.9/12.
Of course, the pop-culture canary in a coalmine is a woman already helping many ABC affiliates, Oprah Winfrey, who transitioned from daytime's usual circus to more of a revival, in the process creating a big tent for audiences and advertisers. She once again brought her brand to prime time with Sunday's "Oprah's Big Give," a pay-it-forward reality show that paid back big time for ABC. It not only premiered with a sixth-place 5.1/12 but provided the promotional platform for lead-out "Here Come the Newlyweds," which just missed the top 10 with an 11th-place 3.9/10.
ABC's Sunday series, strategically scheduled against Fox's NASCAR overrun and post-race show "Sprint Cup Winner's Circle," which posted an eighth-place 4.5/12, will eventually make way for the (melo)dramas "Desperate Housewives" and "Brothers and Sisters." But with the preponderant prime-time demographic being female, these reality series can play most anywhere on the grid and are an example of some of the successful schedule patches each network had to improvise during the strike.
As for "live vs. live plus," the debate over demographic delivery in these shifting times will probably continue, as long as the audience's aversion to commercials is matched by technology. But from a programming perspective -- at least based on the mixed rating results (and cost) -- "live vs. live plus" next fall may be interpreted as less provocative about a living vampire and more evocative of a giving Oprah.
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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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