MINNEAPOLIS (Adage.com) -- "Heroes vs. Villains" is the theme for the new "Survivor," which began its 20th season and 10th year last night.
As for the show itself, its relative heroism or villainy depends on whom is being asked: For CBS and its broadcasting brethren the show has been heroic, as it created a genre that has been a media manna of high ratings and low costs, just when TV networks needed it the most.
For the Writers Guild, however, the reality program proliferation "Survivor" spawned makes it villainous, as it took away scripted series, and thus jobs.
But for the constituency that matters most, it's been mostly heroic, as some of the most popular programs are reality series. Indeed, try imagining CBS without "Survivor," let alone serial-Emmy winning series "Amazing Race." Or NBC without "The Biggest Loser." Or ABC sans "Dancing with the Stars." Or especially Fox, whose "American Idol" shines so bright, rivals refer to it as "the death star."
"Survivor's" two-hour season premiere posted a 4.5/12 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic (based on Nielsen fast affiliate ratings, with final live-plus-same-day data to be released Friday afternoon).
This was a tenth of a ratings point ahead of last February's first episode, but 22% higher than last fall's premiere. While impressive for a 10-year-old show, it pales compared to season two's highly hyped premiere in January 2001 -- the first after Richard Hatch captivated the country's attention -- that delivered a 21.8/48.
The schedule space taken up by reality has, of course, reduced the amount of scripted series. But it's made those that do make the schedule even better, leading many cultural critics to call it the new golden age of TV. Much of that praise is for prime-time dramas, and CBS took one of those programs that was well received last year, "The Mentalist," and moved it to Thursday night. At least last night the move paid off, as like "Survivor," "The Mentalist" won its 10 p.m. time slot with a 3.6/10, leading CBS to a first-place 4.2/12.
ABC's answer on Thursdays has been the medical melodramas "Grey's Anatomy" (a season-low 4.3/11) and "Private Practice" (3.2/9), with "Grey's" a perennial Emmy and Golden Globe nominee, if not winner. That status is less likely with 8 p.m.'s "The Deep End," however, as the show has left critics and viewers cold. Last night it tied for last in its time slot with the CW's more distinctive drama, "Vampire Diaries," with a 1.5/4. Overall, however, ABC was second with a 3.0/8.
Few awards will probably come the way of the other three forensic or sci-fi dramas that ran, either. "Supernatural" (1.0/3) followed "Vampire" on the CW, dropping the network's overall average to a fifth place 1.3/3.
And Fox ran a rerun of "Bones" (2.1/6) and an original episode of new show "Past Life" (1.4/4) to finish fourth with a 1.8/5.
The reality era may have been especially tough on sitcoms compared to drama. But many that remain have led to a bit of a comedy comeback: CBS's Monday night lineup is a critical and commercial success. And while not as highly rated, NBC's "The Office" and "30 Rock" have had producers parade to the podium at award shows for several seasons.
"The Office" ran three episodes last night, with an original at 9 p.m. snagging the network's ratings high point at a 3.7/10. Two reruns filled the old "Jay Leno" slot from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. and notched a 1.7/5 and 1.4/4. "30 Rock" delivered a 2.9/7 at 9:30 p.m. And in prime-time's first hour, two comedies -- "Community" (2.3/7) and "Parks and Recreation" (2.3/6) -- share the same sensibilities, if not the audience nor awards of "The Office" or "30 Rock."
Overall, NBC, a ratings victim to CBS's reality series hero, finished third with a 2.4/6. But the network is poised to do better starting tonight, as the Vancouver Olympic Games usher in the ultimate reality show, and at least for a fortnight, TV's new golden age yields to TV's gold-medal age.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday through Sunday: Let the Games begin! Opening Ceremonies for the Vancouver Olympics air on Friday, live on NBC. After that, events take place on multiple NBC networks.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Gender segregation to the sports extreme, as the Olympics, which often have more women watching than men, run against the Sunday's Daytona 500 on Fox and the NBA All Star Game on TNT.
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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.