But network TV itself didn't prove all that competitive against cable, summer blockbusters or summertime itself. Nightly average ratings in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic dipped below a 2.0 on 20 different occasions for the Big Four networks (and all but one night below a 1.0 for the CW).
NBA fans turn out
The biggest of this week's games, at least as far as the 18-49 audience is concerned, was the next chapter in the storied Celtic-Laker rivalry, which not only brings in two big media markets but also features teams with a more national scope than last year's champion, San Antonio. And while Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett might not have the same magic as, well, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Game One of the NBA Finals was No. 2 this week with a 4.0/12 rating and share (based on the Nielsen "fast affiliate" ratings, which only go up until 11 p.m. ET).
Final numbers may vary, but for now that would be 8% above last year's Game One, which is a good start to what has been a ratings rebound for basketball on network and cable this year. And Game One's warm-up, "NBA Countdown" (3.4/11 in the fast affiliates) also bounced into the top 10 at No. 4.
Not surprisingly, given the relative popularity of basketball vs. hockey, the NHL's Stanley Cup Finals were rated lower, with Wednesday's Game Six clincher for the Detroit Red Wings scoring a ninth-place 2.9/9 and the Pittsburgh Penguins' Game Five triple-overtime victory just behind with a 10th-place 2.8/9. But given that hockey is played by so few Americans and the NHL is a league dominated by Canadians and Europeans -- and runs its regular season on the fledgling Versus network -- the 130% ratings rise for the NBC portion of this year's finals is a remarkable marketing accomplishment.
Dance fans dazzled
And while not a sanctioned sport, the athletic, often acrobatic, dancing of Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" again two-stepped its way twice into the top 10, with Wednesday's installment third with a 3.7/11 and last night's fast-affiliate delivery of 3.3/10 finishing fifth.
And it wasn't physical, but head games that were played on Fox's hot-tempered hits "Hell's Kitchen" (4.4/12) and "House" (3.0/8), with protagonists chef Gordon Ramsay and Hugh Laurie antagonizing their charges, be they in aprons or hospital gowns, as "Kitchen" finished first and "House" seventh.
As for Charlie Sheen and Jimmy Kimmel, two lugs (one lovable) who have probably logged their share of time watching sports, their shows both made the top 10. ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" brought life to the first half-hour of last night's prime time (2.9/10 in the fast affiliates, which would be good for eighth), while CBS's "Two and a Half Men" finished sixth with a 3.1/9.
Given how these games and contests had the competitive edge nearly each night, it's surprising the networks generally didn't pick up on the audience interest in the biggest championships of the week, the Democratic and Republican nominations for president. While there were network cut-ins, the broadcasters, with world-class news divisions, didn't set aside a planned and promoted hour to recap the political year-to-date, which has been the year's most compelling reality/drama/comedy hybrid program.
The electorate has been electrified not just over the issues, but over the contest itself, with campaign strategies analyzed on cable news networks like X's and O's diagrammed by announcers during the big games. As in sports, the personalities are larger than life, with backstory narratives that would put any Olympic "Up Close and Personal" feature to shame.
Instead, the nation's story didn't dominate the nation's airwaves, leaving cable news to benefit. But it's not too late. The primaries and caucuses were the semifinals. And just as the NBA and NHL Finals jump from cable to broadcast, it's perfect timing for the networks to get into the game.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Saturday: Have kids? "Finding Nemo," ABC's "Saturday Night Movie," never gets old. Don't have kids? Make the same plans, as like all Disney/Pixar pictures, it works for all ages.
Sunday: Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Game Two.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Sometimes summertime series bloom into new hits, or bring new appreciation to existing programs. "Jimmy Kimmel Live" gets another prime-time promotion before the NBA Finals. ABC has to be elated over the late-night comic's prime-time performance on Thursday, and will hope for the same before hoops Sunday night.
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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 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 a 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.