MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- TLC isn't called The Learning Channel anymore, but it's still teaching. Monday night its hit "Jon & Kate Plus Eight" was a lesson in how low-cost, high-rated programming fueled by free media can turn TV -- and pop culture -- upside down.
Out-rating every network program, with 9.8 million viewers, "Jon & Kate" caught the public's imagination due to tabloid tales of inferred infidelity by both Jon and Kate Gosselin. Their rocky relationship has brought Brad and Angelina and other Hollywood heavies to lighter prominence on Us Weekly and People covers.
And it's not just magazines that celebrate celebrity but other elements of the mainstream press that are pressing for answers on whether publicly brooding over their marriage instead of looking after their brood is appropriate. Kate's brother and sister-in-law went on CBS's "Early Show," exclaiming exploitation of the kids and that Jon and Kate "are very blinded by all of this media ... and fame and fortune."
So, too, it seems, is TLC, which is eschewing the other meaning of the acronym -- tender loving care -- for legal tender, as advertisers pony up for a show that can redefine the network.
Shows like "Jon & Kate" are also redefining drama itself, as the reality TV soap opera -- and the meta-media narrative surrounding it -- is a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story that even the scriptwriters of daytime dramas such as CBS's "Young and the Restless" and prime-time soaps like ABC's "Desperate Housewives" would be hard-pressed to pen.
And networks, hard-pressed to pay for more expensive scripted series, are increasingly hearing the siren song of reality TV, so alluring in an era of media companies sounding the alarm of escalating programming costs.
And at least for the premiere, the traditional trade-off of low-cost but low-rated reality was upended, particularly with TLC's desired demographic of younger female viewers. With women 18 to 49, for instance, while the original-episode season average rating of 7.2 for "Desperate Housewives" was higher than the 6.5 for the season premiere of "Jon and Kate," among women 18 to 34 a 7.7 for "Jon and Kate" beat a 6.2 for "Housewives," which is much more expensive to produce.
And compared with a conventional soap opera such as "Young and the Restless," TLC's young and restless couple is today's generation's soap opera, as the top-rated daytime drama rates only a 1.7 for women 18 to 49 and a 1.1 for women 18 to 34.
Broadcast networks can't compete
A night later, the network TV ratings race gives more quantitative context to just how strong the ratings were for "Jon and Kate." CBS won Tuesday with an overall 2.3/6 fast-affiliate rating and share in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic, as a rerun of "The Mentalist" (2.4/6) beat the program premiere of "Mental" on Fox (2.1/6) in the night's main matchup of scripted series. (CBS was consistent, with a 2.2/7 for "NCIS" and 2.1/6 for "Without a Trace," while Fox's "House" rerun was more than two-thirds lower than its season average with a 1.7/5, resulting in an overall third-place 1.9/5.)
The CW managed to tie ABC for fourth with a .8/2, as the series finale of "Reaper" could only hit its average, with a .9/3, leading into a .7/2 for reality series "Hitched or Ditched." ABC ran two episodes of "According to Jim" (1.2/4 and 1.1/3) and "Diamonds," which rated more like cubic zirconia, as it was network's lowest-rated show with a .6/2. And NBC's second-place 2.1/6 was the same rating for both "TV's Funniest Phrases" and a rerun of "Law and Order: SVU."
To be sure, as unseemly as it may seem to many -- including, now, close family -- the cultural and commercial combination of "Jon & Kate" may be a once-in-a-lifetime, lightning-in-a-bottle opportunity for TLC. And the very same disheartening (if not disturbing) dynamic that has riveted millions may be the undoing of the show, if Jon and Kate split or the damage to the "Eight" leads them or viewers -- or both -- to quit.
But don't expect that to discourage other broadcast and cable networks from trying to tap into the narcotic of narcissism that makes films such as "The Truman Show" and even "Network" look prescient, and replicate the reality formula of "Jon & Kate Plus Eight" by spawning series of their own.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Wednesday: Ticked off at Ticketmaster? Has the Great Recession cut back on your summer concert plans? No worries, at least if you're a country-music fan. Just sit back and watch CBS's "George Strait: ACM Artist of the Decade All-Star Concert."
Thursday: Sure, school's almost out, but not before "The National Spelling Bee," which runs on ABC starting at 8 p.m.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Last summer's program premiere of "Wipeout!" did just that to the competition, before it cooled, along with the weather, into the fall. ABC hopes for a hot start again as it begins season two at 8 p.m.
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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.