MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Maybe Don Imus didn't get the memo about diversity training. Apparently, the networks -- and viewing public -- did, at least if this week's top 10 network prime-time programs are any indication. With the nation's population and perspective shifting from melting pot to mosaic, audience acceptance -- and expectation -- of casting diversity is reflected in this week's most-watched shows.
As usual, Americans have embraced Fox's "American Idol," giving the elite-eight singers the top two slots of the week, with Wednesday's results show resulting in a 10.5 rating/26 share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic and Tuesday's competition winning the night with a 9.2/27.
Competition and controversy
"Idol" has always been fueled by a combination of competition and controversy. This year's dust-up involves the actual singing contest itself and is centered on the likable Sanjaya Malakar, whose unlikely rise is due to either teen girls having a Tiger Beat moment or a peculiar post-modern media movement to subvert the show by voting for the worst contestant.
Judge Simon Cowell has gone from exacting to exasperation, and even the Wall Street Journal weighed in on the vagaries of the voting. What's barely noticed, however, is that this generation's David Cassidy is of South Asian descent and that his top two rivals are African-American, which makes "Idol" seem more of a musical meritocracy than the projected progressivism of the actual music industry.
The prime-time parade of nations continued in the top 10: Fox's "House," starring Englishman Hugh Laurie as an American doctor bossing around Omar Epps, who plays Dr. Eric Foreman, came in third with an 8.2/21. And the dark hearts behind the white picket fences on ABC's fifth-place "Desperate Housewives" (5.6/14) are led by Latina Eva Longoria, who plays breakout character Gabriella Solis.
ABC's take on the brotherhood of man includes "Lost," which finds itself in sixth place; the show goes so far to embrace internationalism that it uses subtitles when one of its characters, Jin-Soo Kwan (played by Daniel Dae Kim), speaks.
What unites dancing stars
ABC also did well with "Dancing with the Stars," which hoofed into an eighth-place tie with a 4.6/13. The depth of diversity of the contestants includes an Asian-American speed skater (Apollo Anton Ohno); an African-American female boxer (Laila Ali) and Hall of Fame basketball player (Clyde Drexler); an Englishwoman with an artificial limb (Heather Mills); and a Czech Supermodel (Paulina Porizkova), proving the one thing that unites humanity is the fear of dancing in public.
CBS, the most traditional network, has also embraced nontraditional casting -- perhaps too far in the case of "Survivor," which sparked a national conversation of a different kind last year when the show's tribes were separated by race. This season is less controversial, but still successful, as last night's "Nielsen Fast Affiliate Ratings" gave the show a 4.4/13, which would be good for ninth if the numbers hold.
The network's "CSI" on Thursday (6.6/17, based on "Fast Affiliate Ratings") and Tuesday's "CSI: Miami" (4.6/12) also cracked the top 10 (in fourth and eigth place, respectively) as their detectives cracked their cases. These are straight narrative shows and do well with CBS's relatively older audience skew, but both are hip to demographic shifts, with both prominently featuring African-American characters, Warick Brown (Gary Dourdan) on "CSI" and Alexx Woods (Khandi Alexander) on "CSI: Miami," with the Miami version also reflecting its Latin locale with co-star Adam Rodriguez, who plays Cuban-American character Eric Delko.
Reflecting the new multiculturalism
And ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," (5.0/13 in "Fast Affiliate Ratings") is often a top-three show, but slightly slipped to seventh, due to a clip show (which still eclipsed all but "CSI" in the time period). But it's perhaps No. 1 in terms of diversity in front of and behind the camera, reflecting the new multiculturalism.
Indeed, African-American producer and writer Shonda Rhimes seems to have taken the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words to heart in casting her doctors, nurses and patients as she judges "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Of course, like all humans, their characters are flawed and heroic, which makes "Grey's" less about race and more about the human race and for great drama and great ratings.
This is why "Grey's Anatomy" is a TV template not only for its highly anticipated spin-off next year, but also for network TV itself, as critical and commercial success is by its nature inclusive. To be sure, the broadcasters have been uneven and have far to go to make TV screens more like mirrors. But significant progress has been made as the networks' responsibilities to the public -- and to shareholders as publicly traded companies -- converge. Because for America's most accessible and commercial pop-culture art form, it's ultimately green that is the most influential color.
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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. Ad deals are usually negotiated on the basis of live-viewing figures, though Nielsen Media Research and the broadcast networks release viewership statistics that include live-plus-same-day playback on digital video recorders. All the ratings listed here are live.
John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.