Despite Passing of TV Legends, Networks Fail to Win Viewers Over Weekend

Rash Report: Celeb Websites, 'Transformers' Big Draw Compared to Broadcast

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- With the deaths of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon and now Billy Mays, as well as "Transformers" trouncing criticism to score big at the box office, it seems the nation's common conversation this weekend was about pop culture. But as shown by Sunday night's TV ratings race, few were actually watching the medium that fueled those stars: network TV.

NBC tried to create some summertime magic with 'Merlin,' but could only conjure up a 1.1/3.
NBC tried to create some summertime magic with 'Merlin,' but could only conjure up a 1.1/3. Credit: NBC
Instead, it was a smaller screen and the big screen -- using stars and stories that originated on broadcast -- that screamed for short summertime attention spans. First came the news that shocking celebrity gossip made a mockery of high-speed internet, as the web slowed to a crawl once celeb site TMZ scooped the mainstream media by breaking the news that Michael Jackson had indeed died. TMZ's website crashed and other sites were slowed, raising concerns about what might happen in the case of a true national emergency.

Then came Sunday's report on the weekend box office, with the $201.2 million take by "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" transcending every other movie, as Hollywood seems set on setting a new box-office record. But "Transformers," too, was reflective of how TV created an audience for another media form, as the movie is inspired by the mid-'80s TV show.

Network TV, conversely, got lost along the weekend way, with Sunday's ratings race won by Fox, but with a scant 1.5/5 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, followed by NBC's 1.1/3, CBS's and ABC's 1.0/3 and the CW's 0.2/1. (All numbers are based on Nielsen fast affiliate ratings, with final live-plus-same-day data released Tuesday. Please see the attached chart for individual program ratings.)

Fox's win was partly due to a brief Michael Jackson tribute, which ran a few minutes into "The Simpsons" timeslot. NBC and CBS tried to create some summertime magic with "Merlin" and "Million Dollar Password," which were the only original content, non-newsmagazines, but both hit recent lows. NBC's "Merlin" could only conjure up a 1.1/3, down from last week's program premiere of 1.3/4, while CBS's "Password" has declined a tenth of a rating point each of the past three weeks to a 0.9/3.

Of course, some of this is to be expected, as network TV hits its dog days. But these dog days have really become a season, as repeats and reality have become a gone-fishing sign for many viewers. Of course, there are some scripted series, including "Merlin," that the nets are trying out during the off-season, and one may yet catch on as a keeper for next year.

Rash chart June 28, 2009Click for PDF
See how all the shows did in the ratings.

But with the small screen setting up the big screen and computer screens for near record traffic, the networks would be wise to try to return to better days, when their content was at the epicenter of the pop-culture conversation.

WHAT TO WATCH:
Monday: "Ice Age" and "Ice Age 2" won't beat the summer heat, but are best bets on a slow night of programming. FX, starting at 8 p.m.
Tuesday: Sure, school's out, but learning doesn't have to be: Watch the season premiere of "Nova ScienceNow" on PBS.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
How viewers react to a rare repeat of "American Idol," as Fox replays an episode from this year that featured contestants singing Michael Jackson songs.

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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.

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