For Network TV, Experience Trumps Change for Now

Rash Report: Fox Depends on 'House'; CBS Tries 'The Mentalist'

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MINNEAPOLIS ( -- Last Tuesday, deciding between campaign 2008's meta-narrative -- change vs. experience -- voters chose change. This Tuesday, viewers chose experience, as each broadcaster broadly played to its consistent TV tonality. Not surprisingly, the ratings results were consistent, too.
'House' Credit: Fox

Fox, for instance, which won the night with an overall 4.7/12 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, was highlighted by "House" (5.5/14), the type of male-lead character drama that has made "24" such a significant part of Fox's first quarter plans. Both "24's" Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland) and "House's" Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) are the type of lone wolf Fox has used as a primetime protagonist all the way back to Johnny Depp in "21 Jump Street."

Fox also has had a long legacy with sci-fi series, albeit to mixed results. And while "Fringe" (3.8/9) doesn't have the pop culture pop that "The X-Files" had, it is one of the two truly successful series this fall.

Fittingly, it nearly tied with the other one, CBS's "The Mentalist," which delivered a series high 4.0/10. And just as "House" fits the Fox template, "The Mentalist" has read the mind of CBS viewers with its forensic focus, backed up by an ensemble cast with a slightly mysterious male lead (Simon Baker). The same police procedural blueprint can be seen an hour earlier with star Mark Harmon in "NCIS," which had its biggest audience ever last night and its best demo rating (4.0/10) in a year. "The Mentalist's" lead-out, "Without a Trace," is another familiar cop caper and is delivering well above last year's soapy series "Cane." "Trace" rounded up a 2.8/7 to round out CBS's night to an overall 3.6/9.

That put CBS just past NBC (3.5/9) for second place, as NBC ran a schizophrenic schedule (albeit of two successful series) that is indicative of the network's challenges this fall. "The Biggest Loser: Families," one of the reality series that is increasingly defining the network, had a season high 3.5/9. "Law and Order: SVU," part of a TV trilogy that defined the network in the previous generation won its 10 p.m. timeslot with a 3.6/10.

ABC finished fourth with a 2.5/6, due to two series that encapsulate the tough TV terrain it has faced this year. "Dancing with the Stars" has lost a step (and 14% of its season to date demo delivery for its Tuesday result show). Part of it may be overexposure, as ABC runs a "Dancing" recap show at 8 p.m. which only delivered a 2.1/5.

At 10 p.m., "Eli Stone," like so many sophomore series interrupted by last season's writers strike, never got a full step and hobbled into third place with a 1.8/5.

The CW's night is also a Nielsen snapshot of the network's breakthroughs and breakdowns. On the upside, The CW's fall female focus has helped clarify the network's direction with shows like "90210," which delivered a 1.4/4 at 8 p.m. But that was almost a quarter off its season average, as the nostalgia factor has faded with Generation X viewers and never had the same social currency with the Millennial generation that the network's "Gossip Girl" and "One Tree Hill" have.

Whether the genre will have the same generational cross-ups with the planned remake of "Melrose Place" isn't clear. But it's possible it will be paired in prime with "90210" in an attempt to recreate the media momentum both had when they ran on Fox. At minimum, "Melrose" would probably perform better than current timeslot occupant "Privileged" (0.9/2) which lost a third of its lead in viewers. Overall, The CW finished fifth with a 1.2/3.

And who knows? Maybe just as Fox's lone wolves and CBS's sleuths, the sum may be greater than the parts, which would hone the tone of The CW and further what's increasingly important for many viewers (if not voters) in today's media landscape: Experience you can believe in.

Wednesday: Listening statistics signify that country music listenership goes up as the economy goes down. So why not start with the "42nd Annual CMA (Country Music Association) Awards" on ABC?
Thursday: It may not be the best time to begin watching "Life on Mars," given that ABC has decided to move it behind "Lost" come midseason. But for fans of "Lost," it will be one of the more compatible programs ABC has tried, as both "Lost' and "Mars" have their own version of time traveling.

The Tina Fey phenomena should continue, as after the publicity push because of her star turn as Gov. Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live" and Oprah's guest appearance last week, "30 Rock" gets a cameo from former NBC "Friend" Jennifer Anniston.

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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
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