Viewers Opt for Reality Shows Over Reality of War

Rash Report: PBS' Iraq Special Is No Match for Song & Dance Spectacles

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- An unpopular foreign war rages. Two dynamic Democratic candidacies -- one from a prominent political family and one an eloquent (and at times, elegant) Midwestern senator -- alternately electrify the electorate. Young viewers (and voters) are glued to their seats, in front of their sets as the most authoritative name in news examines the lame-duck administration's handling of the war.
'Frontline's' airing this week of its definitive documentary, 'Bush's War,' marked the fifth anniversary of 'shock and awe' and filled the void of the network news divisions, which did not run any prime-time perspectives this week.
'Frontline's' airing this week of its definitive documentary, 'Bush's War,' marked the fifth anniversary of 'shock and awe' and filled the void of the network news divisions, which did not run any prime-time perspectives this week.

Obviously, we're describing 2008, right? Actually, more like 1968. Back then, Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy played today's versions of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and "The CBS Evening News" told the nation the war wasn't winnable, causing President Lyndon Johnson to conclude, "If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

PBS keeping watch
The differences between the parallel political situations aren't limited to the media coverage. It's the public's response to it, as this era's network of record -- PBS -- didn't lose Middle America, despite "Frontline's" definitive documentary, "Bush's War." Airing both Monday and Tuesday nights, it marked the fifth anniversary of "shock and awe" and filled the void of the network news divisions, which this week did not run any prime-time perspectives.

Rather, Middle America got lost in pop culture instead of politics, as singers (contestants on Fox's "American Idol" and Britney Spears on CBS's "How I Met Your Mother"), dancers (ABC's "Dancing with the Stars"), comics (Brad Garrett in Fox's " 'Til Death") and cops (CBS's "CSI: Miami") all reached the top 10 and beat "Bush's War."

Indeed, many young viewers (and voters) -- whose generation has the most at stake -- headed for the hills (literally in this case), as MTV's reality smash "The Hills" ascended to record ratings Monday night, delivering a 1.8 rating in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic and a 3.0 in its wheelhouse of adults 18-34.

Britney boosts ratings
The manufactured stars of "The Hills" have even given manufactured musician Britney a run for her money on the covers of grocery-store gossip mags like "People," which may explain why she in turn invaded their turf with a comic cameo on CBS's "Mother." The sitcom had its best ratings of the year, an eighth-place 4.0/11 adult 18-49 rating and share. (Half an hour later, "Two and a Half Men" delivered a 4.5/12, as did the show running a half hour after "Men," the macho "CSI: Miami," for a fourth-place tie.)

Not bad for a singer trying to make a comeback, but not as good as the Britney wannabes (at least the 1999 version) on "Idol," which once again dominated the top 10, with Tuesday's version further distracting from "Frontline" with a second-place 8.5/23. Lead-out sitcom " 'Til Death" was seventh with a 4.1/10.

(Wednesday's installment of "Idol" was the top-rated program of the week with a 9.0/24, after lead-in "Moment of Truth" delivered a ninth-place 3.8/11.)

Ratings for other documentary diversions included a third-place 4.6/12 on Monday for ABC's "Dancing," while Tuesday's results show delivered a 12th-place 3.6/9.

Impressive journalism
Demographic delivery for "Bush's War" wasn't available at press time: Local People Meter Overnights indicate each night averaged about a 1.9 household rating. Which is impressive -- as was the journalism, which featured a breadth and depth of wonks, writers, military brass and administration insiders giving an unflinching look at the run-up and the running of the war in Iraq.

But the household delivery was beaten by the Big Four networks' average of 6.5 on Monday and 7.0 on Tuesday. And despite the light shed on the war's front on "Frontline," the heat of camera lights elsewhere has dimmed: Just 4% of the available media newshole was devoted to the Iraq war so far this year, down from 23% for the same period last year, according to data recently released from The Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Online winner
Of course, not all young people have tuned out and many are getting their news from different venues, as well -- trends chronicled by The New York Times' Brian Stelter yesterday. "Bush's War," for instance, had 1.5 million online video views in just four days, the most ever for a "Frontline" documentary, according to data supplied by WGBH, the Boston-based producer of "Frontline."

And perhaps there will be a surge of coverage as the Air Force provides cover for the Iraqi army, fighting the surge of sectarian violence America's troop surge had seemed to quell.

But it's unlikely the 2008 media impact will ever replicate 1968, as last night's authoritative voice wasn't Walter Cronkite, but Donald Trump, hiring Piers Morgan as the winner of his "Celebrity Apprentice," which delivered a sixth-place 4.1/11, according to the Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings." If that rating holds, it will beat out CBS's "NCAA Basketball Tournament," which was 10th with a 3.8/10.

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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. In order to report ratings on a timely basis, all the ratings listed here reflect a Nielsen Live number. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of a commercial minute, live-plus-3 viewing basis.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.
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