TV's Cult of the Amateur

Rash Report: Those Trying to Be Famous Beat Those Who Already Are

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MINNEAPOLIS ( -- Critics credited author Andrew Keen for sharp analysis in his 2007 book "The Cult of The Amateur: How the Internet Is Killing Our Culture." He may be right, but another kind of screen seems to be thriving by embracing the nonprofessional as well, as witnessed by last night's prime-time TV ratings.

'America's Got Talent'
'America's Got Talent' Credit: NBC
As usual during summertime prime time, reality TV dominated dramas and sitcoms. But most notable were the types of reality competition shows that won their time slots: those that featured everyday people trying to become overnight sensations.

NBC's "America's Got Talent," for instance, was the highest-rated program of the night among adults in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic, delivering a 3.2/10 rating and share. Although that was down 14% compared with last year's premiere, it did lead NBC to an overall first-place 2.6/8. (Please see chart for all show and network ratings.)

While the show may or may not find a Yankee version of Britain's Susan Boyle, the possibility of amateurs becoming celebrities seems to excite viewers more than the real celebrities on prime time. "America's Got Talent," for instance, was watched by more than twice as many as "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" (1.4/5) and the premiere of ABC's "The Superstars" (1.6/5), a prime-time reprise of the '70s "Wide World of Sports" series that pairs world-famous (if not world-class) athletes and actors in often schlocky sports competition.

Of course, maybe it's not a true test of viewers' shift from celebrities to the uncelebrated, as the famous (and infamous) trying to escape from the Costa Rican jungle on "I'm a Celebrity" or rediscover their A-games in "Superstars" are generally D-listers. But something profound is happening in prime time when formerly big names on "Superstars" round up only half the viewers of ABC's equally absurdist competition "Wipeout" and 71% of the audience for "I Survived a Japanese Game Show," neither of which exactly elevates the elite.

Rash chart June 24, 2009Click for PDF
See how all the shows did in the ratings.

Of course, nearly all summer reality shows -- whether they feature amateurs or professionals -- are beating the scripted series, as nearly all dramas and sitcoms have gone into their summer hibernation rerun phases. The two original episodes that did run performed poorly, as ABC's "Better Off Ted" (0.8/2) and Fox's "Mental" (1.1/3) were non-factors.

Wednesday: "Don't worry. Be happy," sang Bobby McFerrin. Maybe besides a catchy pop tune, he was onto something: PBS explores the connection between music and mind in "The Music Instinct: Science and Song," which Mr. McFerrin hosts.
Thursday: The Great Recession might keep you from your dream Tuscany vacation this summer. Get away anyway by watching Federico Fellini's "La Strada" on TCM.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: If controversy counts, ABC's "Questions for the President: A Prescription for Health Care" should be elected by viewers in a landslide.

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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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