Except, that is, Sunday prime-time programming, where the market for hearts, minds and remote controls is still dominated by the National Football League.
NBC delivered with its "Sunday Night Football" game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars. The Steelers' victory on the gridiron helped NBC win a 4.0/11 rating and share in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic to place a close second to ABC's 4.1/10. And once Nielsen releases full live-plus-same-day ratings tomorrow, which will go beyond 11 p.m. ET, it's likely NBC will score the extra point (or two) to end up the winner.
The game itself notched a 4.7/11 and was preceded by "Football Night in America," which had a 2.5/7.
NBC not the only one
The "Football Night in America" pregame show was beat soundly in its time slot, however -- by football. An NFL overrun on CBS delivered an approximate 7.1/21, which led to a 4.1/11 for a time-shifted "60 Minutes."
But CBS fumbled away much of that audience in the next hour, as "Amazing Race" (3.2/8) was 22% lower. Then "Cold Case" posted a 2.9/7, and the first half hour of "The Unit" had a 2.7/8. CBS was third for the night with a 3.0/8.
The other football network, Fox, also held true to form, at least for the weeks when it doesn't have a late game and its post-game show, "The OT." Instead, assuming its desired demo was watching football on CBS or the postgame on NBC, it ran reruns of "King of the Hill" from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., delivering a 1.3/4 and 2.0/6. Regularly scheduled animated comedies followed, and most of them slipped below last week's premieres. "The Simpsons" was down 20% to a 3.6/10; "King of the Hill" was down 3% to a 3.3/8; "Family Guy" was off 4% to a 4.3/10; and "American Dad" jumped 9% to a 3.5/8. Fox finished fourth for the night with a 3.0/8.
Winner ABC followed its model of providing pigskin alternatives with dramas ("Desperate Housewives" and "Brothers & Sisters"), melodramas (reality show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition") and escapist reality (the season premiere of "America's Funniest Home Videos").
Once again, "Desperate Housewives" was the top-rated show of the night, but its audience continued to erode. The show's 5.8/13 was an 18% decline from last week. Lead-out "Brothers & Sisters" was down 13% to a 4.0/10.
"Extreme" was up a moderate 3% to a 3.8/10. And, perhaps not surprising in this age of anxiety, when America could use a laugh, the season premiere of "Funniest Videos" (2.7/8) was slightly up from last year.
The CW also premiered programs, but, like many companies in these troubled times, it outsourced, turning to production company MRC for "In Harm's Way" (0.3/1), as well as "Valentine" and "Easy Money" (both 0.4/1, which was the network's overall fifth-place average).
Of course, much of the country's angst is due to the financial crisis. The two men who want the job to fix it will debate tomorrow night, creating more anxious feelings, particularly among their partisans.
So don't be surprised if viewers get home tonight and continue the Sunday-night media model by watching "Monday Night Football," as the Minnesota Vikings play a road game against the New Orleans Saints. With the country appearing headed for more hard times, some escapism from the Big Easy may be welcome.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Monday: An unknown Democrat, in the midst of record-low approval ratings for a Republican administration, comes from nowhere to be the next president. Sen. Barack Obama? Maybe. But that also describes Jimmy Carter. PBS's usually excellent "American Experience" profiles the president at 9 p.m. ET.
Tuesday: The second debate between Mr. Obama and Sen. John McCain. If the focus is on '60s bomber Bill Ayers and '80s banker Charles Keating, the country may be in even more trouble than it seems.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
NBC will need a heroic effort from hit "Heroes" to re-engage viewers in lead-in "Chuck" and lead-out "Life."
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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.