The two have been among the most highly anticipated media moments of the summer. Theaters screening "The Dark Knight" were sold out across the country, even for midnight showings. The small-screen counterpart to the big-screen box-office reports -- the Nielsen ratings -- won't be known until next week after "Mad Men" makes its Sunday-night return and, of course, the cable series won't come close to the commercial success of "Dark Knight." But culturally, "Mad Men" is the most influential show on TV this season, getting the attention normally reserved for big breakout hits like ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" or seminal shows like HBO's "Sopranos."
Between the two events, network TV continued its summer season, with some surprising successes amid those expected to have dependable demographic delivery. But it's safe to say no show generated anything near the pop culture passion inspired by the superhero in a bat suit or the men in gray flannel suits.
More of the same
Indeed, most of this week's programs -- including the top 10 shows in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic -- seemed to be placeholders between spring finales and fall premieres. This is most true of the many scripted-series repeats, which retain few core viewers and apparently attract few casual ones. Some did make this week's list, including CBS's "Two and a Half Men," which delivered a 3.1/9 rating and share to place third for the week, as well as its comedic companion "The New Adventures of Old Christine" (seventh, 2.4/7). Joining the CBS sitcoms in the top 10 list were Fox's reruns of "House" (fifth, 2.8/8) and "Family Guy," which tied for eighth with a 2.2/6.
The others making the cut were some form of reality contest. Some were higher-rated and perhaps more anticipated by viewers, like ABC's "Wipeout," which finished first with a 3.7/11, NBC's "America's Got Talent" (second, 3.4/10) or Fox's two installments of "So You Think You Can Dance," which finished fourth and sixth with Wednesday's broadcast delivering a 3.0/8 and Thursday's a 2.7/9 in the Nielsen fast-affiliate ratings.
But most seemed like CBS's "Big Brother" (10th, 2.2/5) or ABC's "Primetime: Family Secrets," which tied for eighth with a 2.2/6: Stops along the nightly remote-control journey, but not overly sought-after destination points.
To be sure, even in these multimedia, multi-tasking times, there's only so much time and so much room for sensational shared experiences. But some of those cultural touchstones should be on network TV, as opposed to this week's Batman and adman Cineplex and cable premieres.
Can TV rise again?
After all, it's not like network TV can't be the center of pop culture gravity during the summer months -- ratings for Fox's MLB All-Star Game were up 10% from last year and 20% for the pre-game. And even though time zone differences and seminal shifts in the media landscape since the Athens Olympics might mean ratings erosion for Beijing, August's Summer Olympics telecast on NBC will be the biggest hit all season. But both these borrow the equity of events, as opposed to creating the equity in its own right.
Maybe watching cable's "Mad Men," of all things, could inspire the networks. Not just to show how an unflinching summer drama can work, but for the characters themselves. Because while Don Draper and his Sterling Cooper colleagues may be cynical about their personal and professional relationships, they not only respect, but are often awed by the power of TV.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: Boys will be boys. Especially when they're men. Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson start a fraternity on the culturally coarse (but often very funny) "Old School" on TNT.
Saturday: Men will be men. Or he-men. Mixed martial arts returns to prime time as CBS runs "EliteXC Saturday Night Fights." Tune in to see what all the fuss was all about the first time it ran.
Sunday: The "Mad Men" principals alternate between being men and boys, both in the boardroom and the bedroom.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Will the highly hyped Emmy nominations for "Mad Men" deliver ratings as well?
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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 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.