Thompson's Choice: Tonight Show Trumps GOP Debate

Rash Report: By the Ratings Race, Presidential Candidate Chose Right

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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.
Fred Thompson
Fred Thompson Credit: NBC

MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Political pronouncements used to happen in town squares. Now they happen in rectangles. Or at least rectangular screens -- be it TV or computer -- as sitting on a bale of hay in Keokuk has nothing compared to chatting on the couch with Jay Leno in Hollywood. At least that's the route Fred Thompson took, along with buying a spot right before the GOP debate on the Fox News Channel and releasing today's version of an FDR fireside chat: a folksy online video.

This media morphing is just the latest in the political-media complex, as the onetime senator straight out of central casting can cast himself as a law-and-order candidate in large part by his part in NBC's "Law and Order" TV series.

Of course, all politicians prize loyalty. And networks do, too. His choice of "The Tonight Show" was certainly due to his NBC affiliation, but it was also no doubt because Jay Leno is the broadest, most accessible late-night host. And Barack Obama has already kept his cool with the cooler (if not icier) David Letterman, and Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul seem more like Charlie Rose guys. And all the candidates eventually make ABC's "Nightline" as part of the news cycle.

For those voters who judge a candidate's judgment more than his political platform, Sen. Thompson chose well -- at least as far as the ratings are concerned. Had he shown up to get scuffed up at the Republican debate, he would have been seen by far fewer people than watched him on "The Tonight Show." While Wednesday's "Tonight Show" numbers won't be available until next week, the season-to-date 1.7/7 rating and share in the ad-centric (and vote-rich) adult 18-49 demographic is 183% higher than the 0.6/2 the debate got, which was the highest for a presidential debate yet this election season (or seasons, given the length of campaign 2008).

This prompted the most trenchant -- and funny -- observation during the exchange, when host and guest agreed it was much harder to get booked on "The Tonight Show" than the Republican debate.

This blurring between L.A. and D.C. is indicative of the postmodern media moment much of TV is finding itself in, as the textbook postmodern markers of opposing hierarchy, embracing paradox and recycling culture are omnipresent in today's pop culture. This postmodernism is long what has cobbled cable together, and it is also increasingly prominent in prime time, including some of this week's top 10 programs.

Big Brother, for instance, used to refer to an oppressive, Orwellian surveillance society. Now, Big Brother isn't watching you, you (or at least some of you in these last days of summer) are watching CBS's "Big Brother," with two episodes in the top 10, at third place with a 3.0/9 and fifth place with a 2.8/8.

Indeed, what was once subversive is now celebrated: Fox's "Family Guy," which appealed mostly to single guys when it first debuted, is now embraced like a family comedy, as two episodes of the cynical sitcom tied for ninth this week with a 2.5/8. and the nontraditional family of CBS's "Two and a Half Men" is arguably the top family comedy on network TV and this week was sixth with a 2.8/7.

And Fox's "House" has broken through by breaking the mold of most protagonists: Out is the modern medical miracle worker so often portrayed in prime time, in is the postmodern Dr. House, who is an unpleasant, pill-popping, rule-breaking anti-hero that is loved by millions. Tuesday's episode delivered a 2.6/7, good for seventh.

To be sure, postmodernism hasn't hit every aspect of prime-time. Absent is the notion of meritocracy: Now many reality shows are embracing the paradox of lack of skill, such as NBC's "The Singing Bee" and Fox's "Don't Forget the Lyrics," which was fourth with a 2.9/8.

And the police procedurals, which are more indicative of modernism with their scientific certitude, has produced what many prosecutors call the "CSI effect," leaving jaundiced juries wanting foolproof forensic evidence. This isn't likely to end soon, at least based on CBS's franchise, as "CSI" was eighth with a 2.6/7 and "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: NY" cracked the top 20; "Miami" was 11 with a 2.5/7 and "NY" 20 with a 2.2/6.

And witness this week's top two programs, NBC's "Thursday Night Football" and "NFL Opening Kickoff Pre-game," which scored a 6.8/19 and 4.2/14 in last night's Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings."

Oh, and as for Mr. Thompson's previous gig? Not the Senate (which has yet to discover ironic postmodernism, unless you count "family values" Sen. Larry Craig) but rather the modern "Law and Order," which spans crime-court-incarcerate in 44 minutes (and 16 minutes from your friendly sponsors). Well, it didn't run this week, but its spin-off, "Law and Order: SVU" did -- twice -- averaging a 1.6/5, slightly below the season average of "The Tonight Show."

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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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