MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- "Sometimes I feel like the whole industry just picked up and joined the circus," joked Jerry Seinfeld to the assembled advertisers about the changes to the media landscape since his seminal sitcom ran on NBC. His media metaphor may have been apt for this and future seasons, because the broadcasters are working without a net as they try to walk a tightrope over the new media landscape.
Singing and dancing ruled the ratings
But for this week at least, a different type of live entertainment dominated. Prime time was more like vaudeville, as singing and dancing ruled the ratings race. Indeed, old-school entertainment (albeit with young, telegenic performers) was featured in four of the top 10 shows in the ad-centric demographic of adults 18 to 49.
The final and penultimate episodes of Fox's "American Idol" were Nos. 1 and 2, with a 10.6/30 rating and share and 8.6/25, respectively. Remarkable ratings achievements these days, but Fox is probably pining for Taylor Hicks vs. Katherine McPhee or Carrie Underwood vs. Bo Bice, as Jordin Sparks vs. Blake Lewis didn't spark the country's imagination in the same way, with Wednesday's demo delivery down nearly 20%.
But Apolo Ohno apparently did spark interest, sparring with Laila Ali and Joey Fatone, as ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" waltzed away with the third and sixth spots for the week, with Tuesday's final garnering a 6.4/17 and Monday's last dance a 4.9/15. "Dancing" is in step with the cultural zeitgeist by tapping into America's celebrity obsession, but by also showing the stars as being vulnerable, competing in an event that is not their -- or their fans' -- strength. And while the audience and athletic achievements may not approximate the show it replaced, "Monday Night Football," the jocks joining the stars gives the show more dual-gender appeal than many reality competitors.
Other reality fare
Two other ABC reality shows, albeit it without singing and dancing, fit into the top 10, in part thanks to the network's strategic Monday-night marriage of the "The Bachelor" with "Dancing With the Stars" that paid off with a 16% lift for this season's rose ceremony (4.4/12, good for eighth place). And Sunday's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" with 4.3/13 came in ninth.
The six reality series were joined by serious and light dramas in this week's top 10, as the days of "Seinfeld" and other sitcoms with big sweeps finales are increasingly hard to replicate. The lighter side featured fourth place "Desperate Housewives" (6.4/16) and Sunday sibling "Brothers and Sisters" (10th with a 4.2/11). More serious cliffhangers on ABC's "Lost" (seventh with a 4.9/13) and on NBC's "Heroes" (fifth, 5.2/13) rounded out this week's top 10.
This week also marked the end of May sweeps and the regular season, and the circus Seinfeld described had a few more empty seats than last year. Fox is on track to win both the sweeps and the season, but for adults 18-49 all four nets have net losses from last year's full season and only ABC kept even with last year's sweeps share (according to Nielsen "live" data, as of yesterday. Comparisons for CW are subjective, depending on using a base of the network's predecessors, UPN or WB).
Of course, the networks historically have been more Ringling Bros. than Cirque de Soleil, trying to create a big tent with all family entertainment as opposed to the edgy fare on cable. So it's not surprising that the this week's top 10 -- and much of this year's season -- would consist of shows with the universality of drama or the multigenerational appeal of young people singing their parent's songs and fox-trotting instead of freak dancing.
But regardless of the circus, it's never complete without clowns, and the network that broadcasts the breakout hit sitcom next year could be best positioned to attempt the amazing feat of wowing audiences, despite all the other media options.
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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.