Summer Series Set Bronze Standard at Best

Rash Report: 'America's Got Talent,' 'So You Think You Can Dance' and 'Wipeout' Lead the Season

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- OK, so maybe it's a stretch to think of a genre that's spawned "The Swan," "When Good Pets Go Bad" and "Who's Your Daddy?" as having a gold standard. But at least commercially, and to some degree culturally, reality TV's seminal shows have had the biggest impact this decade.

'So You Think You Can Dance'
'So You Think You Can Dance' Credit: Fox
Often the gold standard is set by being there first, as original ideas and executions usually last well beyond the rip-offs to which successful series inevitably lead. Indeed, each TV season there's far more fool's gold, as the failure rate for new series now is often as high as for scripted series.

But the networks keep trying, as the payoff of low cost and high ratings can be a game changer in the Nielsen ratings race.

For the past few summers, NBC, Fox and ABC have tried to bill "America's Got Talent," "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Wipeout" as hot summer hits. And while all three are quite successful summer series, none looks like it would be overly successful in the fall or spring, up against first-run fare.

"America's Got Talent," for instance, is in its fourth season, and its Wednesday version is averaging a relatively robust 3.1/9 rating and share in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic. (Last night's edition of the talent show got a 3.3/10 from Nielsen.) "So You Think You Can Dance" is a step ahead for the season, averaging a 3.3/10 in its fifth season (although last night, partly due to running against "America's Got Talent," it was down to a 2.9/9). Even ABC has found a contender, considering the standards of silly summer series: reality romp "Wipeout," which won its 8 p.m. time slot with a 2.9/10, just below its 3.0/9 summer-season average.

But because "Dance" was two hours, it led Fox to first place, with an overall 2.9/9, followed by a tie between NBC and ABC (2.1/7). CBS (1.3/4) and the CW (.3/1) fell to fourth and fifth, respectively.

"America's Got Talent," "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Wipeout" are within 10% of their inaugural seasons' ratings, an accomplishment in its own right during an era of increasing ratings erosion.

But each could best be labeled a bronze compared with the gold standards of summertime hits from the earlier part of the decade. CBS's "Survivor," for instance, was an instant hit, becoming a summer sensation in 2000 with an astounding 12.1/37 season average. Two summers hence, "American Idol" hit a right note with a 6.5/18 summer-season average, before moving to an annual spring fling with viewers that has made it today's most powerful show. Three years later, ABC cut in with "Dancing With the Stars," which averaged a 5.1/15 for its first dance in summer 2005.

Rash chart July 8, 2009Click for PDF
See how all the shows did in the ratings.

To be sure, "America's Got Talent," "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Wipeout" should stick around for quite some time, and are at least gold standards during the dog days of prime time. Fox will trot out "Dance" during the regular season next year, as a time-slot holder in anticipation of "Idol" in the spring.

But, of course, that won't happen with every reality show. "Wipeout's" lead-out, for instance, the absurdist game show "I Survived a Japanese Game Show," may not survive unless it improves on last night's 1.4/4, which was good for fourth in its time slot.

WHAT TO WATCH:
Thursday: For couch potatoes, it'll be either inspiring or depressing to watch the world's fittest athletes live from France as stage six of the Tour de France plays out on Versus.
Friday: Belying the notion of the placid 1950s, the gritty, dark desperation of 1954's "On the Waterfront" and 1951's "A Streetcar Named Desire" run back-to-back on AMC. Half a century on, the combination of actor Marlon Brando and director Elia Kazan still packs a punch.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
"Big Brother is watching you," Orwell warned in his seminal novel "1984," first published in 1949. Sixty years hence, CBS tries its own version of mind control with "Big Brother," which has its season premiere tonight. Will you be watching "Big Brother"?

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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.

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