MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Much maligned even when ready at the scheduled time, Nielsen's daily data was delayed this week, creating new criticism. The disruption was unfortunately timed, as networks selecting shows for upcoming upfront presentations need to know ratings for "bubble" shows facing cancellation or renewal.
But while the delays are undoubtedly frustrating, they are oddly reassuring, as what would worry the TV industry even more would be releasing incomplete or inaccurate data. Instead, Nielsen took the time to get it right.
In some ways, Nielsen is like a baseball umpire, getting noticed the least when it performs at its best. It's been noticed a lot lately, which also shows how the pop-culture players may question its calls or even argue with it and yet still depend on it.
But after its version of a rain delay, the game is back on, albeit backed up. So below is a data-delay "triple-header" with recaps of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night's ratings races.
Want an indication of how sickly sitcoms are? ABC's "Scrubs" and "Better off Ted" spiked 50% and 20% to a 1.5/4 and 1.2/3 rating and share, respectively, in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic. And yet both finished fourth in the their timeslots, drawing only a fraction of the audience watching Fox's "American Idol" (8.3/23, in line with recent weeks but down 11% compared to its season average) and NBC's "The Biggest Loser" (weighing in just below its season average with a 3.6/10), two reality shows that resulted in a one-two finish for Fox and NBC.
And it seems few viewers were in a laughing mood throughout the night, as ABC's comic "Cupid" earned only a 1.6/4, while "Law and Order: SVU" became the timeslot winner. NBC's drama was up a tenth of a rating point to a 3.7/10, and CBS' police procedural "Without a Trace" fell below its average with a 2.6/7.
In between, ABC ran reality show "Dancing with the Stars," the network's highest-rated program, which doubled its sitcom lead-ins en route to delivering a 3.2/8. But, overall, ABC finished fourth with a 2.0/6.
Fox's first-place 6.2/17 also featured "Fringe," which slipped 7% to a 3.8/10 but still won its timeslot. NBC's second-place 3.6/10 was the same rating for the two-hour "Biggest Loser: Couples."
CBS's third-place 3.2/9 didn't have many laughs either, except for gallows humor -- as "NCIS" (3.4/10) and "The Mentalist" (3.6/9) joined the forensic frenzy alongside "Without a Trace."
And after a week in which it turned back Sunday night to affiliates, there's been little to laugh about for the CW, including ratings for "Reaper" (.8/2) and "90210" (.9/2), which dropped 11% and 40%, respectively, as the network finished fifth with a .9/2.
Then again, maybe ABC will have the last laugh. Either that, or it was the last laugh for "Scrubs," which jumped from NBC to ABC and saw a 40% jump in ratings as an hour-long season finale delivered a 2.1/6.
But considering it lost to "Lie to Me" (holding even at 2.7/8), Fox's freshman drama, and just topped CBS sitcoms "The New Adventures of Old Christine" (off 10% to a 1.9/6) and "Gary Unmarried" (2.0/6, a 13% drop), as well as the CW's "America's Next Top Model" (even with a 1.7/5), it's likely it was the series, not season, finale for "Scrubs." (NBC finished fifth in the timeslot with a rerun of "Law and Order: CI," which only locked up a 1.3/4.)
Of course, it's Fox that is usually smiling about Wednesday's ratings race, and this week was no different, as there was no difference from Tuesday's "American Idol" ratings, which once again hit an 8.3 (albeit with a slightly lower share of 20). This fueled the first-place finish for Fox (5.5/15), which was well above CBS (2.9/8), ABC (2.6/7), NBC (1.6/4) and the CW (1.1/3).
Second during the 9 p.m. hour was ABC's "Lost" (4.0/10), which was about even with the previous week, as the show's core viewers stay hooked. CBS' "Criminal Minds" (3.3/8) was down 11%, however, but probably didn't lose many to a rerun of similarly themed "Law and Order: SVU" on NBC, which posted a 1.1/3. Still, that was more than double the second-showing rating for "90210" (.5/1) on the CW.
CBS' "CSI: NY" held the same 3.3 rating as "Criminal Minds," but that was enough to win at 10 p.m., as it beat an original episode of the origin of the franchise, "Law and Order," which held its season-average 2.3/6, despite following repeats. ABC's "The Unusuals" had the opposite result, however, as it lost 60% of its "Lost" lead-in, meaning it, just like "Scrubs," may get scrubbed from ABC's fall grid, which will be announced mid-month in Midtown Manhattan.
Back to normal -- for Nielsen and the networks. Two of today's top TV stars, Ellen Pompeo and Katherine Heigl, highlighted the 100th episode of "Grey's Anatomy" that lead into a special starring one of last generation's top TV stars, Michael J. Fox, which helped ABC win the night with an overall 3.5/10 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic. CBS, with big shows (if not stars) of its own like "Survivor" and "CSI," was second with a 3.2/9, followed by Fox (2.5/7), NBC (2.4/7) and the CW (1.3/4). (Final live-plus-same-day data will be released Friday afternoon.)
Despite hitting 100 episodes, "Grey's" continued its late-season slide, however, as it was down 9% from its season-to-date original episode average. But "Michael J. Fox: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist" had to make ABC hopeful that occasional specials can still help sweeps, as the 3.3/10 had 94% of last week's "Private Practice" season finale rating. At 8 p.m., "Ugly Betty" (2.1/7), which has made a late-season return, seems to have lost its media momentum, as it was off 13%.
Some of "Betty's" slide could be due to timeslot winner "Survivor's" solid retention of 97% of its season average, as it delivered a 3.8/12. But that didn't last, as 29% fewer viewers watched "CSI" (3.5/9) than normal. CBS tried again at 10 p.m., albeit with a "CSI" rerun, which finished second in the hour with a 2.4/7.
NBC, with its own set of current icons like Steve Carell of "The Office" and Tina Fey of "30 Rock," usually finishes third, but sitcom slippage, as well as cop caper "Southland" (2.0/6) matching its lowest rating yet, resulted in the network finishing fourth. "My Name is Earl" tumbled 32% to a season low of 1.7/6. "Earl" lead-out "Parks and Recreation" rebounded a bit to a 2.0/6, which is just one of the reasons NBC renewed the quirky Amy Poehler comedy. But "Parks" too fell 20% from its short season average. While higher-rated, "The Office" (3.8/11) and "30 Rock" (2.9/8) also had fewer viewers than normal, falling 14% and 15%, respectively.
This gave Fox a slight upset with a one-tenth of a rating-point edge for third place. But "Bones" (2.3/7) and "Hell's Kitchen" (2.7/7) were also down 15% and 27%, respectively.
And, on the CW, "Smallville" (1.5/5) and "Supernatural" (1.2/3) slipped 6% and 16%, respectively.
So it was a night of big stars but big declines, with all shows under-delivering their season averages despite May sweeps. In other words, back to normal.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: If Friday isn't enough to bring a smile to your face, Oscar-winner "Happy Feet" will. (ABC, 8 p.m.)
Saturday: With spring weather making many miss TV sports during the day, two network primetime options can catch fans at night: LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers play the Atlanta Hawks on ABC's NBA coverage, and Fox rolls with NASCAR's Southern 500 race. But the best action might be on VS., which carries Game 5 of the NHL rivalry between Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals.
Sunday: Whatever mom wants.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Ratings for Sunday's three-hour season finale of "Celebrity Apprentice," which have stabilized enough to let NBC avoid telling Donald Trump, "You're fired!"
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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.