MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Almost lost in the news narrative about Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich selling President-Elect Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat was the cost of filling Jay Leno's couch. To be sure, it will be less expensive to run five nights of Jay Leno's new prime-time show than the commensurate costs associated with five dramas. But there will also be an opportunity cost, as even NBC is signaling some slippage compared to how the dramas have historically delivered.
Yet perhaps NBC realizes that the days of nights filled with 10 p.m. hits may be waning, if not over. Indeed, this week's top 10 rated programs in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic were dominated by programs that kicked off much earlier: literally in the case of football, and figuratively, in the case of 9 p.m. dramas and sitcoms.
Fox, for instance, had another big Sunday with not just the NFL, but the NCAA as well. After a big number for the overrun of the big rivalry between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys, the "Post-Gun" was this week's top-rated program (actually more of a football fragment) with an 8.2/23 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic. Post-game "The OT" followed on the schedule and on this week's list, ranking No. 2 with a 6.3/17. And the rankings of college football teams were the focus of "The BCS Selection Show" right after, with the unveiling of the Bowl Championship Series games just missing the top 10 with an 11th-place tie 4.1/11.
With all the hype (if not histrionics) in the pre- and post-games, it's good to see an actual game or two get watched as well: The NBC "Sunday Night Football" battle between Baltimore and Washington was seventh with a 5.0/12, and many of those same guys (and, to be sure, quite a few gals) stayed put for the next night, as Carolina beat Tampa Bay on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" (ninth, 4.5/12).
As for scripted series, maybe it's because of the graying of America and the shifting sensibilities about loosening programming standards (let alone wanting to get to bed earlier), but for dramas, 9 p.m. is the new 10 p.m. A generation or so ago ABC's "Desperate Housewives" might have been too risqué for prime time, let alone 9 p.m. (which is 8 p.m. in the more socially conservative Central and Mountain time zones). But it not only plays in Peoria, but often wins there. Nationally, "Housewives" was third this week with a 6.0/14, just above CBS's "CSI" (fourth, 5.7/14 in last night's fast-affiliate ratings), which eschews the sex in favor of gruesome and graphic violence.
This will be just one of the challenges -- and opportunities -- for NBC next year, as it will presumably move the adult themes of its highest rated 10 p.m. drama, "Law and Order: SVU" (No. 20, 3.7/10), a show that can push the content envelope of both sex and violence, an hour earlier.
Not as much reason to have to hide the kids' eyes on Fox's "House," however (unless it's a squeamish medical procedure). And as usual, a lot of eyes were on the medicine's favorite misanthrope, as the show was ranked fifth with a 5.6/15.
Of course, comedy-content boundaries have already been stretched for years. The frisky "Friends" often played in the family hour during its long NBC run, and plays even earlier in after-school and prime-access syndication. CBS's randy "Two and a Half Men" hasn't missed a beat, either, or hardly any viewers, by running at 9 p.m., as it once again cracked the top 10 with a sixth-place 5.2/13. Lead-in "How I Met Your Mother" (4.2/11) was 10th.
Rounding out this week's list was NBC's "The Office" (4.8/12, eighth, according to the fast affiliates). The sitcom has moved from the ridiculous to the sublime in prime time by focusing not on sex or violence, but something that to many may be more disturbing -- the absurdity of the workplace at a time most feel lucky to have jobs they don't even like. So count it as another economic indicator that NBC will give "The Office" its post-Super Bowl platform to try to keep the show in the top 10.
As for 10 p.m. dramas, the closest to the top 10 were on CBS, as "CSI: Miami" (4.1/11, tied for 11th) and "Criminal Minds" (3.9/10, 13th) gave license to CBS President Les Moonves to trash talk talker Jay Leno's leap from late night to primetime. (He also had to emphatically claim that "you can still make a lot of money in network TV." His doth-protest-too-much moment had the opposite effect, however, and instead suggested just how hard it's getting, and why NBC is trying a game-changer.)
Jay Leno's current demo delivery, a season-to-date 1.3/5, may make Moonves more confident. But just as "Saturday Night Live's" not-ready-for-prime-time-players were not only ready for prime time, but for the top 10 with their election-themed specials, Jay Leno can stunt with stars, and create buzz by shaking up the talk-show genre's convention, all while maintaining his Main Street, mainstream accessibility.
Most important, he needs to lubricate the water-cooler talk by getting people to talk about that night's upcoming show, by booking big guests and seizing upon the news narrative.
This is what he did with his announcement on Monday, until on Tuesday a character more clueless than those on Leno's "Jay Walking" segment, Rod Blagojevich, stole the show.
Now if he could just book the Illinois governor as a guest ...
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: Less than two weeks to Christmas, so stay in the irony free zone of holiday specials, as the new year will be cynical enough, given the economic crisis. Start with "Frosty the Snowman" tonight on CBS.
Saturday: And then put the crisis in perspective, something George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) didn't on "It's a Wonderful Life" on NBC.
Sunday: Those who have been watching already know it's the "Survivor: Gabon" finale on CBS. It's also a game of survival for the Dallas Cowboys, who are fighting for a playoff spot and take on the New York Giants on NBC's "Sunday Night Football."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: With ABC and Fox in repeats, the Nielsen game of Sunday survivor will be between CBS and NBC.
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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.