As happy as many were, however, it wasn't a total surprise, as recent polls indicated he would beat his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain. Taking into account another kind of poll -- the Nielsen ratings -- the surprise would have been if voters hadn't acted on the acceptance, if not expectation, of diversity that they have demonstrated as viewers. Indeed, in some ways big breakthroughs in politics are just catching up to pop culture.
Sports fans increasingly race-blind
This week's top 10 list in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, for instance, has its usual fall harvest of football games (and post-games), whose viewers long ago embraced the meritocracy of sports, regardless of background. Baseball, another sport whose fans have come to prioritize competence over color, has ironically been eliminated from future Olympic Games, though it is already a United Nations on the field, with Ichiro Suzuki of Japan, Justin Morneau of Canada, Miguel Tejada and Albert Pujols of the Dominican Republic, and Alex Rodriguez of New York City among some of the MVP winners this decade.
The NFL has less of an international feel, but certainly is diverse. But the colors that bring out the passions of fans are not related to ethnicity, but rather those on uniforms. On Sunday, it was the nautical blue and new-century silver, the official colors of the New England Patriots, who won NBC's "Sunday Night Football" game and tied for the week's top rating, delivering a 6.2/15 rating and share in the demo. And one night later it was the black and gold of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won ESPN's "Monday Night Football," which was fifth for the week with a 5.8/15. (Fox's NFL "Post-Gun" post-game football fragment finished fourth with a 5.8/16.)
Mr. Obama's ascension also comes in a media age of irony, which prods people to look at things differently. In prime time, "Ozzie and Harriet" has morphed into "The Osbournes" and the family values of "The Waltons" have yielded to the family dysfunction of "The Simpsons" (tied for first with a 6.2/15) and "The Family Guy" (ninth, 5.1/11), two Fox animated comedies that explode the nuclear-family assumptions that were the cornerstone of comedies in earlier decades.
And it's not just comedy, but drama (or melodrama) that has inverted conventional formats (and thinking). ABC's "Desperate Housewives" is a modern-day "Peyton Place" of real and existential angst. Like the country itself, it fast-forwarded this season, placing its characters five years ahead of last year's season finale. The reinvigorated series was sixth this week with a 5.8/13.
To be sure, some dramas -- and genres -- are more traditional, such as the police procedurals that continue to work so well for CBS. But even if they don't embrace the postmodern media moment like "The Simpsons" or "Desperate Housewives," they represent the modern sensibility of science signifying rational order, something many critics have called lacking over the last eight years. "CSI," the genre's genesis, delivered an eighth-place 5.1/12 in last night's Nielsen fast-affiliate ratings.
To be sure, however, this week -- and year -- has been all about politics. On an aggregate basis, the top show was election-night coverage, which reached 71.5 million viewers during prime time. In the adult 18-49 demographic, ABC won with a 4.5/10, followed by NBC's 4.3/9, CBS's 2.3/5 and Fox's 2.0/4.
But just like the change promised in politics and delivered in pop culture, TV news has undergone seismic shifts, with household ratings gains of 50% since election night 2004. In the demo CNN topped its broadcast brethren from 8-11 p.m. with a 4.9/11, followed by Fox News Channel's 3.1/7 and MSNBC's 2.0/4. In fact, CNN's election-night coverage earned it the No. 10 spot on this week's top 10 most-watched programs.
Yet the week's highest-rated political programming wasn't one of the broadcast or cable news networks with official returns, but the unofficial way that TV translates the spin of candidates and campaigns -- "Saturday Night Live," which ran a "Presidential Bash" special on election eve, finishing seventh with a 5.6/13.
"30 Rock" star
"SNL"'s breakout star, Tina Fey, was perhaps as relieved as Sens. Obama and Biden when they won, as she won't have to reprise her impersonation of veep candidate Sarah Palin (at least until 2012?). Instead, she can concentrate on "30 Rock," her sitcom whose media momentum continued largely unabated, down just 5% from last week's record ratings to a 20th-place 3.9/9 (fast-affiliate ratings).
Of course, in politics and pop culture, progress is incremental. A night after Democrats took control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, protesters took to Castro Street in San Francisco to lament the passage of Prop. 8, which banned gay marriage in California. (Similar bans passed in Arizona and Florida.)
In a rare case of pop culture not ahead of, but tracking alongside politics, ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" found itself in a similar controversy, as the character of Dr. Brooke Smith (Erica Hahn), who is in a same-sex relationship with Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez), was abruptly written out of the show, with her last appearance last night. Creator Shonda Rhimes, who has made diversity a major component of the program, denies the change is due to the lesbian storyline. Despite the controversy (or perhaps because of it), "Grey's" once again made the top 10 with a third-place 5.9/14.
But the story about the storyline is just another example of how prime-time portrayals aren't a matter of whether a changing America will be reflected on TV screens, but how. Mr. Obama may be helping to lead this change or may simply be reflecting it, but in either case he certainly benefited from it, and political history was made.
But he's just catching up to pop culture. After all, though he is the first African-American president elected, he'll have to settle for second on TV, following President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) of "24."
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: The only Woody Allen film to win best picture, "Annie Hall," runs on TCM.
Saturday and Sunday: Replace your political passions with pigskin ones, as ABC's "Saturday Night College Football" features intrastate rivals USC and Cal while NBC's "Sunday Night Football" has intra-division rivals NY Giants vs. the Philadelphia Eagles.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
How badly will NBC's "Saturday Night Live" miss those political passions, particularly now that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has gone back to Alaska and her comedic mimic, Tina Fey, has gone back to "30 Rock?"
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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.