Reruns and Reality Derail TV's Dramas, Sitcoms

Rash Report: Fresh 'Idol,' 'Bachelor' Lure Viewers Away From Stale Scripted Fare

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Based on internet buzz, radio chat and water-cooler talk, many were upset after "Bachelor" Jason Mesnick -- who toted his tot to work his way into contestants' and viewers' hearts -- jilted his first choice, Melissa Rycroft, in favor of his newfound flame, Molly Malaney. And all on national TV.

'Bachelor' Jason Mesnick jilted his first choice, Melissa Rycroft (right) on national TV.
'Bachelor' Jason Mesnick jilted his first choice, Melissa Rycroft (right) on national TV. Credit: ABC
Now they all know how TV writers feel, because viewers have been breaking up with scripted series this season. Just this week, for instance, only four scripted series made the list of the top 10 shows in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic. Instead, reality programming bit off six slots, including the five highest-rated shows of the week.

And it's not just the top 10. The full schedule shows reality TV dominating dramas and sitcoms, according to data from Feb. 26 to March 4, the most recent week with full data available.

The "General Variety" category, for instance, averaged a 4.7/12 and the week's first three slots were Fox's "American Idol," whose Tuesday version delivered a first-place 9.0/23 rating and share, followed chronologically and in ratings by Wednesday (7.8/22) and Thursday (7.5/20, based on fast-affiliate ratings).

"Participation Variety" averaged a 3.8/10, but it may have had the highest off-air participation, via the buzz over "The Bachelor" (5.4/13), which was ranked fifth after scoring its highest ratings in half a decade.

And with so many viewers watching reality TV as a version of prime-time sports, it's fitting that it wasn't "The Bachelor's" season finale, but the two-night "post-game" that followed that broke the mold (and ratings records). Monday's "The Bachelor: After the Final Rose" was the highest-rated yet for the franchise, out-delivering the finale with a fourth place 6.7/17. The next night was itself jilted by 40% of the previous night's audience, but was still good enough for a 13th place 4.1/11.

And the "Participation Variety" also includes last night's "Hell's Kitchen," which whipped up a ninth place 4.6/12 after following Fox's "Idol."

Conversely, dramas, which had 42 telecasts, compared with eight for "General Variety" and 11 for "Participation Variety," averaged only a 2.1/6. Part of this was due to some dramas, including CBS's "The Mentalist" and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," being repeats. But that just spells out another reality advantage, as viewers can always expect a fresh episode.

There are still ways to break through to viewers with scripted series, however, as evidenced by police procedural "CSI" on CBS, which rounded up a sixth-place 5.3/13 (fast affiliates) as well as ABC's "Lost" (4.9/12), which was seventh. Both are indicative of how innovating, not replicating, can pay dividends for years to come: "CSI" started the forensic frenzy that increasingly defines the network and "Lost" is so original it has created a loyal -- some might say obsessed -- fan base, despite having TV's most intricate plotline.

Reality TV's grip has to be even less funny to sitcom writers, as despite representing 19 shows -- the second-highest total after dramas -- the category only averaged a 1.7/5. But like the dramas on this week's top 10 list, the two sitcoms are examples of how sharp scripts can win the night, as seen with disparate comedies "Two and a Half Men" (eighth, 4.9/11) and "The Office" (10th with a fast-affiliate 4.5/11).

The next few weeks should be better, as March sweeps (delayed from February due to digital TV transition, which itself was delayed) brings back fresh episodes of sitcoms and dramas. But scriptwriters should sharpen their pencils, because at least recently, reality is writing networks' narrative.

WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: With low ratings and NBC making room for Jay Leno in prime time next season, "Friday Night Lights" will most likely go dark. Catch it while you can at 9 p.m.
Saturday: After a week in which CitiBank's shares were priced below its ATM fees, capitalism is in trouble. Escape by turning to Marx. No, not Karl! Groucho -- and his brothers -- in "A Night at the Opera" (TCM, 8 p.m.).
Sunday: Maybe DVRs wouldn't be as threatening if the commercials were as funny as the parodies on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." Watch a compilation on "Saturday Night Live: Just Commercials," starting at 8 p.m.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Ratings for week two of NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice," which may fall even further against the return of ABC's "Desperate Housewives."

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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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