MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Preliminary presidential inauguration ratings from 56 markets indicate the highest viewership since another transformational politician, Ronald Reagan, took the oath in 1981. If the current 29.2 major market ratings hold, it would translate into over 33.4 million homes (which doesn't count those who streamed the event on the internet).That's because only ABC went live throughout primetime with the big story of the day. (Or year. Or generation.) This paid off at 10 p.m., as "A Moment in History: The Inauguration of Obama" won the hour with a 2.9/7 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, which was higher than the 2.2/6 for NBC's "Inauguration of Barack Obama." (All ratings based on Nielsen fast-affiliate data, with the final live plus same-day data released on Thursday.) But it didn't pay off for the night, as fewer viewers seemed interested in civics than pop culture once the inaugural scene shifted from the capitol mall to capitol balls. Fox, for instance, chose "American Idol" over the American many idolize (at least during his honeymoon phase), winning the 8 p.m. hour with an 8.9/22. Lead-out "Fringe" (4.7/11) also beat the now mainstream politician. Overall, Fox was the people's choice with a first place 6.8/16. But "Idol's" 24% tumble suggests some chose the "Barack Star" over the rock stars the contestants aspire to be. 'Loser' gains
Or maybe they shifted to a program that seemed even more incongruous with the inauguration of the winning couple: "The Biggest Loser: Couples," NBC's weight-loss reality show, which gained 21% more viewers than a week ago. For the night, NBC tied ABC for second place with a 3.4/8, well ahead of CBS's fourth place 2.2/5. CBS did run inauguration programming from 9-10 p.m., finishing fourth with a 1.8/4. But on a night when they could have continued to reposition lead anchor Katie Couric -- who surprisingly ended up as one of the election's most consequential journalists after her interview with Sarah Palin -- CBS ran reruns of "NCIS" (2.3/6) and "The Mentalist" (2.6/7). And while CBS's corporate cousin, the CW, doesn't have a news division, it could have covered the inaugural balls as pop culture and fashion events, since for at least an evening Washington was more of a celebrity epicenter than Los Angeles or New York. Instead, it missed an opportunity to tap into its young viewers' voting excitement by running "90210" (1.1/3) and "Privileged" (.8/2), which were off 35% and 21%, respectively. To be sure, the networks covered the inauguration and the parade. But in an era when each is trying to keep its nightly newscast journalistically relevant and financially rewarding, all but ABC ceded the story, in whole or in part, to its cable competitors (or cousins). It may have paid off for a night. But over time, it's the same media mistake made during the campaign that resulted in viewers often looking to cable as their first place for TV news. WHAT TO WATCH:
Wednesday: The day after swearing on the bible, Fox offers another look at our times with the program premiere of "Lie to Me."
Thursday: OK, with the election and inauguration over, the Obama drama has come to an end. But one of the pop-culture protagonists, Tina Fey, can still be found on NBC's award-winning "30 Rock."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: "Lie to Me" runs up against "Lost," which should show the truth about how loyal viewers are to ABC's complicated drama.
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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 rashreport.com.