Almost Stars Beat Out All-Stars

Rash Report: Full Slate of Amateur Hours Makes Up Bulk of Top-10 Shows

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Here's this week's Rash Report, in which one brave media buyer, John Rash of Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, dives into a week's worth of broadcast-TV ratings in order to illuminate those that delivered and those that didn't. Look for the Rash Report every Friday at Ad Age's MediaWorks.
The Singing Bee
The Singing Bee Credit: NBC

MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- The stars came out to shine in prime time this week. But it was the almost stars beating the all-stars on Tuesday, as NBC's "The Singing Bee" premiered as the top show of the week, delivering a 4.9 rating and a 14 share in the ad-centric adult 18-to-49 demographic. Combined with a third-place 3.6/11 for "America's Got Talent," NBC beat the talented American Leaguers (who won their 10th straight All-Star Game) from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. (the pre-game show went until 8:48 and delivered a 15th-place 2.5/9).

To be sure, the All-Star Game is still potent programming, scoring a second-place 4.0/12, but was down 13% from last year. Midsummer amateur hours passing the "Midsummer Classic" of America's pastime is a summer stunner that is part of what may be a seminal shift in prime time, if not pop culture.

Pros vs. amateurs
The partial eclipse of the All-Stars reflects a sports slump that saw record-low ratings for the NHL and NBA finals last month. Professionals making millions in sports via multimillion-dollar network rights fees have been beaten by rank amateurs in inexpensive shows whose prime-time prominence is often due, ironically, to their lack of skill.

This cult of the amateur spans seasons and genre, but began its major media manifestation in February 2006, when Fox's "American Idol" beat CBS's "Grammy Awards," as well as several of NBC's Winter Olympics telecasts. Audiences once awed by elite athletes seem to be embracing non-elites, seizing the narrative of stardom by their viewing and, at times, voting.

There will, as always, be sports upsets, both on the field and in the Nielsen box scores, as certain games or series spike. But this cultural upheaval upsets the commercial assumptions of the sports and media businesses, and it's also having an impact on scripted series as well -- at least during the summer -- as only one live-action series made the top 10: a rerun of NBC's "Law and Order: SVU (ninth, with a 2.9/8).

The only other scripted series that repeated in the top 10 was "Family Guy" on Fox, with reruns placing fifth, with a 3.3/9, and eighth, with a 3.0/9.

All reality
Otherwise it was all reality. And as with any genre, reality has many more low notes than high ones, but music and dancing contests have had particular success, as evidenced by the regular-season ratings of Fox's "American Idol" and ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." Perhaps it's the universality of singing but not understanding or remembering lyrics -- or, in the case of last night's "So You Think You Can Dance" on Fox (3.5/11, according to Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings," good for fourth if the numbers hold up), not being able to dance to them -- that makes these shows so accessible. Fox, always quick to begin or reflect a reality trend, followed up the swarms watching "The Singing Bee" with Wednesday's "Don't Forget the Lyrics," which finished sixth, with a 3.2/10.

Amateurs trying to be rock stars of cooking or comedy did well on Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," which continued its ratings heat with a seventh-place 3.2/9. And NBC's "Last Comic Standing" got the last spot in the top 10, with a 2.8/9.

Whether the empowered audience will have the last laugh remains to be seen, but for now it is firmly in control of the unpredictable pops in pop culture. And it is far from certain that any of these summer sensations will last past the first fall freeze, as 16% of viewers apparently forgot Fox's follow-up episode of "Don't Forget the Lyrics," and "Bee's" buzz was nearly two-thirds quieter for its second showing.

But when any new show -- let alone one with the campy fun of a summer-camp skit -- brushes back the grand old game (and the only all-star game that matters), it indicates a whole new ballgame for network TV.

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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 traditionally have been 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.
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