Monday was just the latest example of how the troupe once known as the Not Ready for Prime Time Players has taken prime time -- as well as late night -- by storm. "SNL Presidential Bash 2008" delivered a 5.6/13 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic from 9 to 11 p.m., helping NBC win the night with an overall 4.4/11, well over CBS's 3.7/9, ABC's 3.0/7, Fox's 2.1/5 and the CW's 1.6/4.
'Saturday Night' halo
Last night's special was 40% higher-rated than the "Weekend Update Thursday" two weeks ago and 27% more watched than the average of the three special episodes. Season to date, the late-night version of "Saturday Night Live" is up 48%, and "30 Rock," which stars Sarah Palin imitator Tina Fey, had its best ratings ever in its season premiere last week.
And an election in which Obama Girl and Joe the Plumber often seemed like running mates was made to parody. So not surprisingly, Comedy Central's "Daily Show" is up 13% this fall compared to last year. Comedic companion "The Colbert Report" is also having a good year, as 18% more are laughing than last season.
Maybe the serious selection that voters face makes people want to (or need to) laugh, because comedy also performed well in the first hour. CBS's "Big Bang Theory" (3.7/10) and "How I Met Your Mother" (4.1/10) had their best ratings this year. "Bang" was even bigger than ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" in the first half-hour, as the reality escape delivered a 3.9/9 for a 90-minute episode. This was 11% lower than "Dancing" 's season average, which also hurt lead-out "Samantha Who?" (2.4/6), which had its lowest ratings of the year.
This created an opportunity for CBS's "Worst Week" (2.6/6) which topped "Samantha," but it, too, had its worst week, no doubt losing some laughers to "SNL."
"Worst Week" 's lead-in, "Two and a Half Men," was 70% higher-rated with a 4.6/10. But "Men" was down 10%, as it normally doesn't have to compete against voters becoming viewers of political satire. This also impacted the 10 p.m. dramas on CBS and ABC, as "CSI: Miami" (3.6/9) was off 16% from its season average and "Boston Legal" (1.8/4) was down 14%.
Fox, meanwhile, also had a lower-rated night, as fantastical dramas "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" (2.0/5) and "Prison Break" (2.1/5) may have seemed discordant from the drama of the history-making election being lampooned on "SNL."
And maybe even a few of the young adults who are expected to make today's turnout record-setting got swept up in political parody as well, as the 1.6/4 ratings and shares for "Gossip Girl" and "One Tree Hill" were down 6%.
Of course, even in a year when the electorate is electrified like this one, there is erosion from four years ago: The 2004 "SNL Presidential Bash" was 5% higher-rated. But compared to nearly every genre since the last big vote, that's actually remarkable retention.
Some are speculating that come Nov. 5, the electorate will no longer be electrified and instead unplug from politics. For some, that may be true, which could cut the ratings gains made by cable news networks this year. But whoever wins this Nov. 4, come Nov. 5, they have to govern a nation jettisoning jobs, bailing out banks and trying to win wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So it might be wise for the prime-time versions of "SNL" to not beat a hasty retreat to late night. Instead, it may even be a better time for political comedy, because if you don't laugh, you'll cry.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Tuesday: The best reality, drama and comedy in years culminate with coverage of election night 2008 (coverage on multiple networks).
Wednesday: After watching NBC's cool electoral map in the cold Rockefeller Center ice rink and CNN's hologram interviews, watch the less flashy -- but more substantive -- "News Hour with Jim Lehrer" for analysis of what the election all meant.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
For the most part, the broadcast networks ceded primary coverage to their cable competitors (or collaborators, in today's cross-ownership media landscape). Will ratings reflect cable now being the first choice for news, even if the networks have full coverage?
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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.