Tributes, from fans and peers, are pouring in. And no doubt their former networks will acknowledge them in some way. But perhaps the best way to honor their legacy is to revive their art form, which is nearly nonexistent on network prime time today, even though some of the most important shows in the early days of TV history were variety shows.
NBC's "Laugh-In" launched the comic careers of Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, among others, and was a mod precursor to today's intersection of politics and pop culture, with Richard Nixon's "Sock it to me" cameo a precursor to Bill Clinton's saxophone jam on "The Arsenio Hall Show." CBS, conversely, played to a more mainstream, Main Street audience, and thus was the ideal network for the safer, but just as funny, "Carol Burnett Show," which made Saturday night TV an event before, well, "Saturday Night Live," NBC's more postmodern variety show.
Nielsen data within the last week ("live plus same day" through Wednesday night) indicates only one program, ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos" is even categorized as "comedy variety." But not a single series featuring sketch comedy, the signature of what most consider a variety show, is even being tried in prime time. (NBC, however, has scheduled four "Saturday Night Live" political specials for the fall, a nice start.)
It's not that there aren't any timeslots available, as 23 shows could broadly be categorized as reality, with Nielsen subcategorizing them into specific subgenres.
The most ubiquitous is "general variety," which accounted for 12 shows and averaged a 1.7/5 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic. Two versions of one "general variety" show made it into this week's top 10, as Wednesday and Thursday episodes of "So You Think You Can Dance" were perfect dance partners, tying for third after both delivered a 3.6/11 (last night's numbers are based on the Nielsen "fast affiliate ratings").
Variety with a twist
Second, with eight telecasts, is "participation variety," which doesn't mean us potatoes were getting off our couches, but rather a contestant-based show like Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," which finished second for the week with a 4.4/12, or ABC's "Supernanny," which tied for ninth with a 2.5/7. Overall the "participation variety" subgenre delivered a 2.1/6.
There are two other reality subgenres: "Audience participation," a category whose one show, CBS's prime-time version of "The Price Is Right," had little audience participation itself, delivering a 1.5/5; and "quiz giveaway," which may evoke Monte Hall's "Let's Make a Deal" but is more like a deal with the devil, as the contestants on Fox's "Moment of Truth" (sixth, 3.0/9) are tempted to ruin relationships in exchange for money.
Of course, the two biggest genres remain drama and sitcoms, but both have declined dramatically relative to reality. Indicative of the struggling sitcom, comedies have half the slots of dramas, as 12 shows averaged a 1.5/5 while 24 dramas averaged a 1.3/4.
The numbers suggest parity, but much of the average is pulled down by poorly performing drama repeats on the CW and the dearth of dramas post-May sweeps. ABC, however, saved its best for last, or "Lost," in this case, as last night's season finale delivered a 4.9/13 in the "fast affiliate ratings," which would place it first for the week. NBC's "Law & Order: SVU" was the other drama to crack the top 10, tying for ninth with a 2.5/7.
Sitcoms hold up
Sitcoms, conversely, generally repeat better than dramas during the summer months and this week had two in the top 10, as CBS's "Two and a Half Men" (3.3/9) and "Rules of Engagement" (2.8/7) were ranked fifth and eighth, respectively.
The last two genres, "sports event" and "sports commentary," may seem dominant in prime time, particularly during a week of the Indianapolis 500, the Stanley Cup Finals and the NBA Conference Finals. But with much of the play-by-play airing on cable and some events in daytime, there were only five prime-time telecasts this week, with one, Fox's "Sprint Cup Winner's Circle," making it into the top 10, as the post-race program delivered a seventh-place 2.9/10.
As for "comedy variety," with networks responsible to shareholders and advertisers, it's understandable why executives are risk-averse, as attempts at reviving variety shows have fallen flat. But then again, so do most programs.
"The Carol Burnett Show" premiered in the fall of 1967. Four months later, "Laugh-In" debuted. Sure, network TV is about making money. But it's also about making memories. Outside of "Lost," one wonders: How many of this week's top 10 shows -- or any of the current prime-time programs, for that matter -- will be remembered fondly 41 years hence?
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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. 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 a commercial minute, live plus three-day viewing basis.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.