Nielsen may not have quite the same precision, but the TV ratings evaluate something that may be even harder to judge: Americans' cultural tastes and viewing habits. Take Sunday night, when a rerun of ABC's "Wipeout" beat the elite athletes setting world records on NBC's broadcast of the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Glorious feats overlooked
The 1.7/6 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic in the Nielsen fast affiliate ratings (final live-plus-same-day figures will be released Tuesday) wasn't a big rating, of course. But it is a big story, as the amateur-hour obstacle course, inspired by a Japanese game show, beat coverage of some of the most impressive feats ever by American athletes. Overall the trials delivered a 1.6/5 from 7 to 9 p.m. ET. But head-to-head, the race wasn't close: The "Wipeout" repeat wiped out the live track-and-field trials (1.2/4) by 41%.
NBC's coverage was down 20% from last week's gymnastics trials -- not surprising, given the popularity of the pixies who often become the "face" of the games. But the ratings for the trials still have to concern NBC, as unlike the actual Olympics, the trials are live, in prime time and have guaranteed American winners. And now is the time to be building Olympic viewing momentum, given that the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing take place in about five weeks.
Still, steady goes the race, and NBC at least showed consistency to win the night, as a two-hour "Dateline" (2.2/6) gave the network an overall 1.9/6 average. ABC was close behind with a 1.6/5, with a two-hour "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" repeat (1.9/6) and a rerun of "Desperate Housewives" (1.0/3) following "Wipeout."
Dinosaurs don't quite rule
Fox passed on the Olympic competition with another summer ritual, the summer blockbuster, choosing to air "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" (1.5/5), which put the network in third.
CBS also chose yet another summer tradition, repeats, as two reruns of "Cold Case" (1.4/4 and 1.3/4) led out of first-run "60 Minutes" (1.4/5) and "Million Dollar Password" (1.7/5) to give the network a fourth-place 1.4/4 finish.
As for the CW? The network programmed -- and delivered -- like the Jamaican Bobsled Team: in the competition, but not competitive. Five consecutive reruns ("One Tree Hill," "Everybody Hates Chris," "Aliens in America," "The Game" and "Girlfriends") all delivered a 0.3/1, which was the network's nightly average.
So overall, with the exception of super-swimmer Michael Phelps and super-sprinter Tyson Gay, who both broke world records in their respective sports, Sunday was a slow night for network TV. And although NBC itself had a hard time getting out of the starting blocks, it can take solace in the fact that these are just time trials, with plenty of chance to show the world on the big Olympic stage starting "8/8/08," as its promos remind viewers.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Monday: The controversial, if not contentious, historian Niall Ferguson begins a revisionist history of World War II on PBS's "War of the World."
Tuesday: OK, now you're curious: See what all the fuss is about by watching "Wipeout" on ABC.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Is "Wipeout" a one-week, summer -- or season -- sensation? Week two will begin to indicate.
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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 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.