Kennedy Coverage Not Made for Prime Time

Rash Report: Two Perspectives Join Cable Saturation

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Political pundits on both sides of the aisle (and the radio dial) lauded the legislative accomplishments of Sen. Edward Kennedy, with some, including conservative columnist George F. Will, calling him "the most consequential" Kennedy.

'Ted Kennedy: The Last Brother'
'Ted Kennedy: The Last Brother' Credit: CBS
With the news breaking after most went to bed Tuesday night, morning news shows were the first source for many to learn of Mr. Kennedy's death, and cable news networks went wall-to-wall with coverage. And perhaps most remarkably for a non-presidential passing, two networks, CBS and ABC, devoted an hour to a senator's personal and professional life.

But beyond the Beltway and Midtown media organizations, how did the Kennedy coverage play? Ratings reflect that while Americans surely caught the coverage in some capacity, most still use prime time to escape the world's woes, including the death of the senate's most influential member.

Which explains how CBS's "Ted Kennedy: The Last Brother" finished last amongst the Big Four networks at 8 p.m. in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, and how ABC's "Remembering Ted Kennedy" lost to two forgettable reruns of cop dramas on CBS and NBC at 10 p.m.

Instead, easy escapism won the night, as the 8 p.m. winner, ABC's "Wipeout" (2.6/8 rating and share in the demo), as well as a recap episode of "America's Got Talent" (1.8/6) on NBC and a "Bones" repeat (1.2/4) on Fox, beat CBS's special (0.9/3). (The CW's rerun of "America's Next Top Model" delivered a 0.4/1).

At 10 p.m. ABC's "Remembering Ted Kennedy" (1.0/3) was also last, losing to reruns on CBS ("CSI: NY," 1.6/5) and NBC ("Law and Order: SVU," 1.8/5).

In between at 9 p.m., NBC had the highest-rated show of the night, "America's Got Talent" (3.0/8), which led the network to finish first with an overall 2.2/6, followed by ABC (1.8/6), CBS (1.3/4), Fox (1.2/4) and the CW (0.5/1).

Rash gridsEnlarge
See how all the shows did in the ratings.

Full-day cable ratings are not yet available, but last night's prime-time averages, compared to each network's August average, show that despite being positioned as the cable news network liberal alternative, ratings were relatively static for MSNBC. On the anti-MSNBC, Fox News, whose hosts have been historically hostile to many of the causes Kennedy espoused, was still the highest-rated last night with a 0.4/1, an increase of about 7% in the demo. And while only about half that, CNN, as often happens during breaking news, has the highest jump, 30% over its August average.

But just as with broadcast, it was entertainment trumping news, as Bravo's "Top Chef" (1.5/4) topped the ratings amongst cable networks and would have been competitive on broadcast, too.

To be sure, the relatively low ratings for the news specials may have been because the story was so well-covered all day. This is particularly true in today's instant internet age, when lunchtime is the new prime-time for news sites and video streams. Indeed, ask anyone today what they remember about yesterday's TV and they would probably indicate Kennedy coverage, but perhaps the meta-media coverage and not a specific show.

And of course, as with all political figures, context is crucial. In other words, despite the relatively low TV ratings, given the condition of Congress's approval ratings, which current senator or representative will merit such coverage in the future?

WHAT TO WATCH:
Thursday: Sure, it's only an exhibition, but with every other network scripted show a repeat, the Florida football match-up between the Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may be the best drama on TV.
Friday:
Cut through the cable chatter on Ted Kennedy and what is now being called "Kennedycare" by watching the political analysis of David Brooks and Mark Shields on PBS's "Newshour with Jim Lehrer."

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Fox's football to blitz every scripted series repeat, with its only competition CBS's "Big Brother."

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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.

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