Ed, Farrah and Michael

Rash Report: The Passing of Three Stars -- And a Media Era

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- The week began with worry over the health of avuncular anchorman Walter Cronkite. It ended in mourning over three other members of America's collective cultural family: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson.

Farrah Fawcett
Farrah Fawcett Credit: AP
While each was distinctly different, they each represented a media era that may be gone forever. Ed McMahon, for instance, was the No. 2 on a program that was No. 1 for decades -- "The Tonight Show" -- whose host, Johnny Carson, may not have been the king of pop, but whose knighting of up-and-coming comics created the next generation of TV's pop culture royalty.

Two of those whose career soared after "Tonight Show" appearances included his successor, Jay Leno, and his eventual rival, David Letterman. While Leno will soon have a prime-time platform and Dave just beat Jay's understudy, Conan O'Brien, in total viewers, the daypart -- just like all media -- now seems wide open, leaving the nation without the one comic commonality to talk about the next morning over coffee.

Unlike McMahon's many years on "The Tonight Show," Farrah Fawcett spent only a year on ABC's "Charlie's Angels." But it was a match made in pop-culture heaven, going hand-in-hand with a poster that sold millions. That, however, was back in the era of the big three, not the big 300 available to some households. Today, it's hard to imagine the small screen creating such a big sensation, and releasing a cheesecake poster might be called cheesy (or quaint), especially considering yesterday's news that a developer tried to add porn as the latest iPhone app.

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson
As for Michael Jackson, his impact was so big he represented the ultimate shared experience, but ironically concurrently accelerated the media meltdown that makes it so hard to replicate his success. His "Thriller" album was not only the top seller of all time, but came at a time when stars could cross generation, gender and geography to truly live up to being the "The King of Pop."

But his breakthrough also brought truth in advertising to the iconic "I Want My MTV" campaign, and cable's crack-up of big broadcasting shares led to further individualization -- if not isolation -- in music. Indeed, just a decade later, the most impactful musical movement wasn't "Thriller" but Napster, which created the conditions for the seismic shift to today's iPod culture.

And later, Michael's bizarre behavior created content, and the conditions, for ubiquitous celebrity websites like TMZ, which was the first to report his death yesterday.

The networks, having once benefited from Ed, Farrah and Michael, were quick to respond to yesterday's passings, with the big three running retrospectives on both Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. But the ratings indicated an inversion of Farrah's and Michael's artistic legacies. While Jackson will be remembered as one of culture's truly transformative figures, it was Farrah's story that network TV's more-august audience found most compelling, just as they found her more accessible.

In the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic, for instance, ABC's "20/20" Farrah retrospective delivered a 2.3/7 Nielsen fast-affiliate rating and share, compared with its hour earlier "20/20" Michael Jackson special, which notched a 1.7/5. CBS ran a Michael Jackson special at 10 p.m. and delivered a 1.9/6, while NBC's two-hour "Dateline," which touched on both stars, averaged a 1.7/5.

Rash chart June 25, 2009Click for PDF
See how all the shows did in the ratings.

But perhaps Michael's moonwalk legacy was most reflected in what show won the demo derby: Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" (2.5/7) which undoubtedly features many performers who were inspired by Michael's moves.

Whether any are as talented as Michael remains to be seen. But if they were, would they be seen? And by how many people? Media is bigger than ever. But stars, if not smaller, are part of a bigger constellation made possible by today's media environment.

So while we could now use a smartphone to watch Ed bellow "Heeeere's Johnny," upload a digital image of Farrah's red swimsuit poster, or dance to the beat of "Beat It," the likelihood that we'd watch, look at, or listen to the same thing seems remote in today's day and age. After all, they're called iPods, not wePods.

So today, many mourn for these three big stars, who will be missed. But maybe, deep down, with shared cultural experiences also expiring, we're also mourning because we miss each other.

Friday: For news on Michael's autopsy, cable news networks. But for a look at Michael's artistry, MTV.
Saturday: Skip the summer drive in double-feature and catch two Alfred Hitchcock classics on AMC: "Notorious" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much." Sunday: Then catch a summer popcorn movie, but also on cable, with AMC's running of 1986's "Aliens."

Fan backlash as the media move on to the next part of the story, the medical mystery of Michael Jackson's death.

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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.

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