MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Before Simon and Sanjaya on Fox's "American Idol" and catwalks and catfights on The CW's "America's Next Top Model," there was reality TV. It was called the news. And this week in particular, the news wasn't good, as the shock over the shootings at Virginia Tech has shaken an already war-weary country. The event's effect on the national psyche over the long-term remains to be seen, but the immediate effects on the national Nielsen ratings were readily apparent in several genres.
After considerable criticism for not preempting prime time on Monday night and ceding coverage to their cable competitors (or cousins, in NBC's and Fox's case), Tuesday brought specials from the big three on the Blacksburg tragedy. All were branded as one of the network's newsmagazines (whose prime-time proliferation a decade ago was a precursor to today's spread of reality TV). All featured the network's top anchors and reported real news, instead of the many manufactured stunts that have come to define the genre.
ABC's "Primetime" was the highest rated, with a 3.5/10 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, a 59% rise over normal levels. CBS ran a special "48 Hours" 36 hours after the shooting spree and was up 22% from the show's Saturday version, with a 2.2/6.
Big scoop, bigger dilemma
NBC News -- which was the unwitting recipient of both the year's biggest scoop and biggest dilemma after being sent the killer's multimedia manifesto -- had higher ratings for "Dateline" (1.6/4) as well. But now NBC and other networks are in the middle of a contentious controversy over the propriety of running the video, as media control has supplanted gun control as one of the key issues to emerge after the shooting.
The backlash gives context to how American audiences are seemingly of two minds when it comes to video violence, with the distinction drawn between news and entertainment. Many are uncomfortable -- or find it unconscionable -- that Cho Seung-Hui would be given the limelight in death. And yet an analysis of this week's prime-time schedule confirms that watching disturbing images of criminal depravity is relatively routine for many viewers, as series about serial killers, kidnappers and other criminals proliferate in prime time.
Indeed, of the 94 hours on this week's schedule, 25 were either police procedurals, such as CBS's "CSI" or "CSI: Miami" (4.7/12, the second-highest-rated program the night of the shooting and eighth of the week), or jurisprudence shows, such as NBC's "Law and Order" franchise. This forensic frenzy is particularly present on Saturday night, as all but three programs are cops shows or Fox's "Cops" or "America's Most Wanted." And despite what seemed like saturation coverage on network TV, in prime time the cumulative adult 18-49 ratings for the cop dramas was 56.3, nearly five times higher that the 9.8 for the resurgent newsmagazines.
Counter-trend for every trend
But of course, in a medium as broad-based and culturally and commercially accessible as network prime time, there is a counter-trend for every trend. So, for all those riveted to the news -- or watching crime/court/incarcerate dramas in 44 minutes (plus 16 minutes from your friendly sponsors) -- there are many who prefer the judges on Fox's "American Idol" or ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," or the jury of peers on CBS's "Survivor." These versions of electronic escapism were three of the top 10 shows this week, with "Idol's" Wednesday results show resulting in a 10.9/27 and Tuesday's competition (9.9/27) the top two. "Dancing" had a 4.9/13, good for seventh. ("Survivor" finished 11th.)
Still others prefer judging the moral gray areas of medical dramas such as ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" (8.5/22, based on Nielsen's "Fast Affiliate Ratings, which would be good for fourth if the national numbers hold) and Fox's "House," third for the week with a 9.1/22. Or others flee to prime-time soaps such as ABC's "Desperate Housewives," which finished fifth with a 6.2/14, or mysteries such as "Lost" (5.1/13, for sixth). And now -- perhaps more than ever -- some need a laugh, so CBS's "King of Queens" finished 10th with a 4.5/11 . ABC's "Brothers and Sisters" was No. 9.
Most times, network prime time is mostly a commercial construct, as networks aggregate audiences and rent them to advertisers. But once in a while, TV is a video mirror to the national soul and the what, how and why people watch reflects as much about America as any national opinion poll.
And indeed, it's often just as insightful to look at what Americans aren't watching. The lowest rated prime-time program last week? The CW's "Seventh Heaven," which congregated a 0.5/2 on Sunday night.
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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. Ad deals are usually negotiated on the basis of live-viewing figures, though Nielsen Media Research and the broadcast networks release viewership statistics that include live-plus-same-day playback on digital video recorders. All the ratings listed here are live.
John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.