MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Barbara Walters released her annual "10 Most Fascinating People" list last night on ABC. As always, the list was about "stars." From politics, movies, sports, even tabloids -- everywhere, it seems, except network prime time TV. Most notably, there was little cultural or commercial crossover from her top 10 list and the list of top-10-rated shows in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic.
To be sure, some of the categories were the same. Sports, for instance, as super-swimmer Michael Phelps, with eight gold medals, was No. 9 on the "fascinating" list. As usual, sports topped the Nielsen list, but it was NFL football, as NBC's "Sunday Night Football" scored the top spot with a 6.1/14 rating and share. CBS's "Post-Gun" post-game coverage was second with a 5.8/16. The late game also helped "60 Minutes" clock a seventh-place 4.5/11.
Movie stars usually make Ms. Walters' list, and this year was no different, as Hollywood pals Tom Cruise and Will Smith were named No. 2 and No. 10. Will Smith first burst into mainstream pop prominence not because of his music, but by making hip-hop accessible with "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," which premiered a generation ago on NBC.
Miley Cyrus signals changing eras
Eighteen years later, No. 8 on the "fascinating" list, Miley Cyrus, is the type of star network TV needs in its constellation. But instead, indicative of how cable has cobbled together the post-"Fresh Prince" generation, "Hannah Montana" is a hit on the Disney Channel.
Since scripted series are the source of most A-listers who might make the "fascinating" list, perhaps the writers strike struck down any chance of a new performer emerging. Instead, at least on the Nielsen list, it was stars and shows that will soon show their age, at least in TV terms. Three of them are in their fifth season, a time when even the hottest series start to cool: ABC's "Desperate Housewives" (third with a 5.7/12), Fox's "House" (fifth, 5.0/14) and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" (fourth, 5.5/14), whose star Katherine Heigl made last year's list, not because of the show but due to her star turn in the hit movie "Knocked Up."
CBS's "CSI" was sixth with a 4.6/11, and will soon replace its star, William Petersen, with another, Laurence Fishburne. (No need to replace the stars of another CBS show on the list, however, as Santa Claus, Hermey the Dentist, Yukon Cornelius, the abominable snowman and Rudolph himself should keep 1964's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" fascinating forever -- at least to kids. It finished ninth with a 4.2/12.)
Maybe what's missing from prime time TV is a political pulse. Just as the networks ceded coverage to their cable competitors (or cousins) for much of the fascinating finish between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the Democratic derby, prime-time programming seems detached from the biggest story of the year. It was no surprise that President-elect Obama topped the "fascinating" list and Alaska governor and former veep nominee Sarah Palin was third, but what was most telling was how others on the list were representative of the intersection of politics and pop culture: Contentious conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh at No. 6; actor Frank Langella, whose channeling of Richard Nixon mixing it up with the BBC's David Frost in the upcoming "Nixon/Frost" has Oscar buzz, was No. 4; and Sarah Palin's dead-on doppelganger, Tina Fey, was No. 7.
Tellingly, Ms. Fey's other project, the NBC sitcom "30 Rock" (3.4/8), would only rank 26th in the ratings. But the lead-in for "30 Rock," "The Office" (4.3/11), was eighth. And its star, Steve Carell, should have been on the list anyway, if not for embodying the blur between politics and pop in Comedy Central's "Colbert Report," then for representing the inanity, if not insanity, of corporate life at a time when jobs are being shed at record rates. NBC clearly gets it, as "The Office" gets the coveted post-Super Bowl slot early next year.
As for the last spots on each list? Some serendipity, perhaps. Thomas Beatie, the tabloid treasure now known forever as "the pregnant man," was deemed fifth "most fascinating." His gender-bending was just the kind of topic that was squeezed in between the heated political arguments on Ms. Walters' daytime series, "The View," which had a hot ratings year by doing what isn't often done in prime time -- reflecting what's really fascinating to many viewers.
Indeed, maybe ABC could consider some prime-time exposure for the show. After all, "Barbara Walters Presents: The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2008" itself finished 10th this week with a 4.2/11.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: It's rare to find a new holiday special. OK, so this one is full of classic clips, but NBC's program premiere of "Greatest Holiday Moments Countdown" should keep the holiday spirit going.
Saturday: Prime time's big game is the Big 12 Championship between second-ranked Oklahoma and No. 17-ranked Missouri.
Sunday: And once that's decided, tune into the BCS selection show to see who the NCAA decided should play for the national championship.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
A big network night on Sunday, as Fox focused on football and animated hits, NBC runs with "Sunday Night Football," CBS has the "Amazing Race" finale and a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movie, and ABC has original episodes of "Desperate Housewives" and "Brothers and Sisters."
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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.