MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Incarcerated for income tax evasion, Richard Hatch may be wondering why the broadcast networks haven't bailed him out. After all, he bailed the networks out. His unlikely star turn as the winner of the first "Survivor" was the pop-culture canary in a coal mine for reality TV back in the summer of 2000. Now, nearly seven years later, the sole canary has become a flock as reality TV has not only survived, but thrived.
Joining Rudy, Susan and Kelly, the often naked Richard gave viewers characters as vivid as any in scripted sitcoms or dramas, revealing the cultural and commercial rewards of a new genre that has been media manna for an industry facing a rapidly changing media landscape.
Deeply rooted TV trend
A look at this week's network ratings race shows how deeply rooted this TV trend is: The top-rated shows in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic Sunday through Wednesday were reality shows. Fox's "American Idol" continued its cultural hegemony with overwhelming wins Tuesday (10 rating/29 share, based on Nielsen "live" ratings) and Wednesday (10.1/27).
On Monday ABC waltzed to the top with "Dancing with the Stars" (5.7/15, 39% higher than the 4.1/10 for Fox's "24," which might even intimidate Jack Bauer). And although winning Sunday isn't an unusual occurrence for ABC, it's usually due to handyman Mike Delfino (James Denton) and the rest of the hardened hearts on "Desperate Housewives" (2.1/5), not handyman Ty Pennington and the hardhats on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (4.2/12), which was the night's winner.
Granted, "Desperate Housewives" was a repeat. But by pricing programming low enough to negate the need for reruns, reality TV avoids the corrosive effects of the business model of the two-episode cycle for scripted prime time -- which is one of the many reasons why no network gave any serious consideration to serial dramas last week at the program development meetings.
'CSI' breaks the string
The string was broken last night, with CBS' "CSI" winning with a 7.1/19 (Nielsen Fast Affiliate Ratings). But reality shows finished second (CBS' "Survivor," 4.4/13) and fourth (Fox's "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?" 3.6/11), beating a repeat of one of this year's few successful scripted shows, ABC's "Ugly Betty" (2.4/7).
The two networks often most adversely affected by the reality check are NBC and CW, but even these two networks benefited best from non-scripted TV.
"Deal or No Deal" continued to be a big deal for NBC, as the Sunday (2.6/7) and Monday (3.2/9) versions were the network's highest-rated shows.
And one of the few silver linings on a graying lineup on the CW is "America's Next Top Model" (2.3/7), which beat CBS's "Jericho" (2.2/7), NBC's critical fave "Friday Night Lights" (2.0/6) and ABC's "Great American Dream Vote" (1.5/4), which bucked this spring's reality resurgence and has been canceled. And despite finishing last in its Tuesday time slot, CW's "The Pussycat Dolls" (1.2/3) increased 50% from its "Gilmore Girls" (0.8/2) rerun lead-in.
Success often yields excess
Of course, with this success the networks may yield to excess, as happened last fall when so many serialized dramas demanded so much viewer loyalty that it may have hurt ABC's hit "Lost" and "24," the subgenre's gold standards.
NBC already announced plans for more non-scripted fare next year, and CW must look longingly at how MTV has created cultural cache with the same desired demographic by changing the "M" from music to melodrama with shows such as "Laguna Beach."
So the networks will need to show some prime-time prudence in picking next year's shows. But then again, who would have predicted fifth graders could give a grad-school level lesson in inclusive, all-family programming?
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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 are often negotiated on the basis of live-viewing figures, though Nielsen Media Research and the broadcast networks also 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.