MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- "The Simpsons," Fox's small-screen series that'has had a huge commercial and cultural impact, makes its big-screen debut tonight as a feature-length film after beginning as an animated short on "The Tracey Ullman Show." Fittingly, two reruns made a surprise showing in this week's network prime-time top 10 list, delivering a third and sixth place 3.0/9 and 2.9/8 rating and share, respectively, in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic.
Perhaps the ratings revival for "The Simpsons" reruns was due to the Hollywood hype or a clever campaign for one of the real towns named Springfield to host the premiere of the movie (Vermont, home of Howard Dean and Ben and Jerry's, seemed a fitting choice). Or maybe it was a fleeting diversion from reality shows, which made up seven slots on this week's list.
Respite from real characters
But "The Simpsons" rediscovery, however, could have been from those looking for some real (if not real-life) characters in prime time, as the animated antics of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie offer more fleshed-out characterizations than many of the cartoonish characters populating prime time this summer.
Just consider the rest of this week's top 10, with reality TV concepts and contestants that are comic, sometimes intentionally. Top show "Hell's Kitchen" (3.8/11) on Fox, for instance, features chef Gordon Ramsay, who probably shouldn't be playing with knives, let alone the lives of the aspirants perspiring under his abuse. And it's one thing to risk ridicule for not knowing how to flambe. It's another to sweat out fifth-grade questions in seventh-place "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader" (2.8/9), Fox's game of wits with Jeff Foxworthy as a redneck Alex Trebek.
Musical memory -- or lack thereof -- on NBC's "The Singing Bee," tied for third place (3.0/9), and on the two versions of Fox's "Don't Forget the Lyrics" (fifth in last night's Fast Affiliate Ratings with a 3.0/11, with Monday's version tied for seventh with a 2.7/8) have concepts that would be played for laughs on the many shows within a show on "The Simpsons" (think "Itchy and Scratchy," the show's absurdist take on "Tom and Jerry"). And having Jerry Springer and David Hasselhoff (recently seen drunk dining in his daughter's homemade video) judge artistic merit in "America's Got Talent" (lately in the top 10, but 11th this week, with a 2.6/9) is satire even "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening may not attempt.
Granted, there is some real talent on Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance?" which waltzed to second with a Fast Affiliate rating and share of a 3.3/10, but the same can't be said for the houseguests on "Big Brother" (tied for 10th with a 2.7/10), as even the oppressed Orwellian version showed more humanity.
Of course, the humans giving Homer a run for his money aren't just found in reality TV, as Charlie Sheen's womanizing, boozing bachelor ad exec looks like he time-traveled from last night's "Mad Men" on AMC, substituting the sharp suits for Hawaiian shirts. His star turn on CBS's "Two and a Half Men" has the sitcom sitting in a seventh place tie with a 2.7/8.
And perhaps even "Simpsons" characters like Police Chief Clancy Wiggum and Anchorman Kent Brockman were more in keeping with audience aspirations, at least compared to the sordid story surrounding the Dallas police force and NBC's "Dateline," which made it a three-way tie for seventh with a 2.7/8. This week the newsmagazine and the network were slapped with a $105 million dollar lawsuit from the sister of a man who took his own life after the police -- and "Dateline" cameras -- knocked on the door in pursuit of catching (and filming) him for the show's popular "To Catch a Predator" series. In the wake of Wednesday's announcement that more than 29,000 registered sex offenders were discovered to have had profiles on MySpace.com, the show will be tempted to continue to exploit this hook, but the journalistic justification -- let alone the legal one -- may be difficult to sustain after such tragic consequences.
No such tragedies on "The Simpsons," however, either during one of the fastest half-hours on TV or in the two-hours-and-a-box-of-popcorn version: just the comedy that's concurrently low and high-brow. But during this season of reality TV and summer sequels at the cineplex, it's not just the humor, but the humanity of animated characters in "The Simpsons" that is perhaps the most real thing on screen -- big or small.
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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 traditionally have been negotiated on the basis of live-viewing figures, though Nielsen Media Research and the broadcast networks 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.