It's possible "Saturday Night Live" will have a dead-on impersonation of ABC moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos this week, as regardless of whether Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton performed above or below expectations, ABC's inquisitors were excoriated by experts in journalism and politics for focusing more on American flag lapel pins than pinning the candidates down on policy specifics.
Voting with their remotes
The debate over the debate may abate post-Pennsylvania primary, but no one is arguing the one factor that performed above expectations: the voters, who became viewers in significant numbers. And not just in the more mature, civic-minded plus demos, but in the ad-centric adult 18-49 crowd, which elected to make the debate the highest-rated show from 8 to 9 p.m. ET. The full two hours averaged an overall 2.7/7 rating and share, which not only was the top-rated candidate forum (do they really debate?) so far this year but would make it the 34th ranked show for the week.
In many ways, this week's Top Ten also reflects an expectations game, in which shows can be evaluated not just on their rank, but on how well they perform compared to expectations. Fox's "American Idol," for instance, continued its landslide. Both Tuesday's competition and Wednesday's results show resulted in an 8.8 rating, with Tuesday slightly above with a 23 share compared to Wednesday's 22, good enough to take the top two spots of the week. But it also continued its slide, with Wednesday off 17% and Tuesday down 22% from season-to-date levels.
Two other reality shows that have defied expectations -- both culturally and commercially -- made the Top Ten, with mixed ratings results. One explores obesity and the other obsequiousness, as NBC's "Biggest Loser" contestants aspire to overcome a Western-world health crisis while Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" contestants perspire to curry favor with a boss from hell, chef Gordon Ramsay. All are particularly of the moment, making video virtue of behaviors previous generations would have watched prime time to escape from. "Hell's Kitchen" ranked seventh with a 4.7/12 but was down 14% from season-to-date levels, while "Biggest Loser" gained 34% for the finale, finishing eighth with a 4.4/11.
Reality beats drama
Of course, reality TV has performed better than expectations much of this season (particularly due to the writers strike), and drama has still been the decade's dominant genre. But at least until ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost" find their way back with fresh episodes, the drama genre was light on this week's list, with only two of the cop capers that have become a cottage industry making it: NBC's "Law and Order: SVU," which was sixth with a 4.7/13 and, representing CBS's "CSI" franchise, the "NY" version, No. 10 with a 3.9/10.
Instead, it was the oft-stumbling sitcom (a genre that has been about as popular as Dennis Kucinich and Tom Tancredo were in the primaries) with three spots on this week's list, including the CBS comedies "Two and a Half Men," fourth with a 5.3/13, and lead-out "Rules of Engagement" ninth, rating a 4.1/10.
But the biggest superseding of expectations is the superlative sitcom "The Office," which not only had to find a convincing replacement for legend Ricky Gervais in its jump across the pond from BBC to NBC, but break nearly every American rule by embracing irony, silencing the laugh track and never making the lead character accessible or sympathetic. Fans -- including Gervais himself -- have flocked to the Steve Carell version, making it last night's top-rated program and, if the Nielsen Fast Affiliate ratings hold, number five for the week with a 4.9/13. (Lead-out "Scrubs," which may be heading out to ABC, was thirteenth with a 3.7/10.)
The potential "Scrubs" move to ABC may have been the best news for the network all week. Because while most of the media scrutiny was on the debate and its effect on the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., it was Wisteria Lane and "Desperate Housewives" that may have concerned the network more. The show returned with the first first-run episode since viewers got so swept up in the pre-strike tornado cliffhanger, finishing third with a 5.9/14. But in network TV's expectations game it under-delivered, as this year's "second premiere" was off 21% from September's debut and down 19% off its original episode season-to-date levels. Unlike the senators, maybe what the housewives need is a good, juicy scandal.
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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+1 number, unless otherwise noted. (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.