But who knows? They are saving network TV, at least on the nights they or their vice-presidential candidates debate.
Last night was just the latest example, as the second presidential debate drew 63.2 million viewers (estimates of the ad-centric 18-to-49 audience are not yet available) across multiple broadcast and cable networks, a 20% jump from the first presidential debate. Part of the audience jump was due to the debate's running on a Tuesday instead of a Friday, and no doubt some of it was due to how much heavier the weight of the world is after even one more week of the global economic contagion.
But the contest still drew fewer viewers than the vice-presidential debate, as the political, social and cultural curiosity surrounding Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made that showdown last Thursday the second-most-watched debate ever.
The real races
The real races were in the 8 p.m. ET hour, when all the networks ran entertainment programs, and from 10:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., as debate-analysis programs competed for viewers after the candidates competed for voters.
In the first hour, CBS was the upset victor with "NCIS," which delivered a 3.7/9 18-to-49 rating and share. It beat ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" (3.6/9), which ran in place of the usual time-slot occupant, "Opportunity Knocks." NBC was close, gaining 3% from last week for "The Biggest Loser" (3.1/8). Fox ran a repeat of "House" with predictable results: Its 2.6/7 was half of what last week's original episode delivered. And the CW -- the only network not to run debate coverage, despite how the election has electrified the network's base of young viewers (and voters) -- ran "90210" (1.7/4) and "Privileged" (1.1/2) to average a 1.4/3 for the night.
CBS's early "NCIS" victory certainly didn't carry over into the post-debate "Campaign '08" (2.3/6), however, as the drama about a savvy Navy man was 61% higher than the analysis of another savvy Navy man, Mr. McCain, who warmly greeted a fellow veteran toward the end of the debate. Instead, it was a tie between ABC and NBC, as each analysis delivered a 2.9/7.
More election coverage
There's one debate left, which will run next Wednesday from Hempstead, N.Y. And in between now and election night, NBC will run four special "Weekend Update" segments focused on the campaign, starting this Thursday night. It may have a hard time comedically, let alone commercially, to top "Saturday Night Live," as the Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players have generated more buzz (and often higher ratings) than many prime-time programs.
Of course, the networks will also have Election Night and Inauguration Day. But then it will be on to bigger challenges for one of these two compelling candidates, as the presidential problems will be far bigger than saving prime time.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Wednesday: There's still time to check out this year's new models! "Knight Rider" runs at 8 p.m. on NBC, and "Gary Unmarried" runs at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.
Thursday: Take a break from politics and MSNBC's "Hardball" for the original version, as the Los Angeles Dodgers travel to Philadelphia to take on the Phillies in the National League Championship Series on Fox.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the rocky reception to the new fall shows, televised sports are flourishing. While it won't have NFL-size ratings, expect solid success for the NLCS, particularly because it features two big TV markets and because it runs on Fox, which is usually a destination for male viewers.
~ ~ ~
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.