With even a seen-it-all media mesmerized, and with millions watching the stranger-than-fiction story unfold (the cable news networks' ratings spiked once the scandal broke), one could ask: Who needs scriptwriters? Or novelists, for that matter?
Indeed, were Tom Wolfe to update his iconic "Bonfire of the Vanities" 20 years later and substitute "Master of the Universe" Sherman McCoy for the elegiac Mr. Eliot -- confessing crimes he previously prosecuted – Mr. Wolfe's new publishers at Little, Brown would probably have determined it too unbelievable. (No wonder Mr. Wolfe's next novel is set in Miami. After this week, New York may be too much, even for this generation's great Gotham chronicler.)
It was all too real for his poor family, as well as New Yorkers, stunned after the oldest profession gave them a new governor in a week. And it played in a week when the networks were weakest, finally having run out of nearly any scripted series to hold viewers' interest before new episodes begin rolling out next week.
TV's more conventional reality shows, with willing contestants vying for fame and fortune (as opposed to the unwilling infamy of Mr. Spitzer's singer-turned-call girl Alexandra Dupre) won six of this week's slots on the Top Ten list, which was again dominated by Fox's "American Idol." Finishing first and second, with Tuesday's 9.7/27 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic followed by Wednesday's 9.2/24.
Truth comes out
And concurrent with the Fox News Channel mini-cam lights glowing around Mr. Spitzer's residence as he weighed his moment of truth, the klieg lights were on the squirming subjects of Fox's "Moment of Truth," which was fifth with a 3.9/12. ABC's "Oprah's Big Give" was sixth with a 3.9/10 (watch for these two to meet on her talk-show couch in his inevitable confessional TV tour, which has become a public ritual peculiar to our times).
Other reality programs making the Top Ten include CBS's "Survivor: Micronesia" (4.2/13, according to last night's Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings," which if they hold would place it fourth) and, ironic in a week dominated by images of a diminished governor and a dignified Silda Wall Spitzer, epitomizing the "for better and for worse" part of marriage vows, was ABC's "Here Comes the Newlyweds," which placed ninth with a 3.4/9.
Of course, even at the tail end of a writers strike there will still be a few scripted series to make the Top Ten, including last night's new episode of ABC's "Lost" (a third-place 4.8/13, according to the Nielsen "Fast Affiliates") as well as two series containing characters clumsy with women themselves, Charlie and Alan Harper (Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer) in CBS's "Two and a Half Men" (seventh, 3.7/10) and the animated Peter Griffith in Fox's "Family Guy" (eighth, 3.6/9).
A man of his word
But overall, it was a week of reality TV, with the primetime contests seeming scripted compared to the combustion of the unscripted -- and until now undiscovered -- life of Eliot Spitzer, who promised in campaign ads to "bring passion back to Albany" after his tenure as a crusading attorney general.
Oh -- as for the show that rounded out the Top Ten? Fittingly for a week when a lawmaker was unveiled as a lawbreaker -- it was NBC's "Law & Order," which finished 10th with a 3.2/9.
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. In order to report ratings on a timely basis, all the ratings listed here reflect a Nielsen Live number. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of a commercial minute, live-plus-3 viewing basis.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.