Network television is renowned for its lowlife treachery, but what happened Monday night took backstabbing to a new low. Josh Schwartz, the executive producer of NBC's Chuck, administered a vicious beating to....himself. The season debut of Chuck drew 6.6 million viewers, clobbering Schwartz's other show, The CW's Gossip Girl, which had an audience of just 3.5 million -- the series both air at 8 p.m. Schwartz reportedly left taunting messages for himself on his cellphone, and then, distraught, dumped a horse's head in his bed.
The final Nielsen data is in, and Friday's presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain didn't bring in quite as many viewers as it appeared from preliminary results. About 52.4 million viewers (about 4.6 million than the overnight numbers suggested) watched on the four big broadcast networks, the two big Spanish nets, the three cable news channels, CNBC and BBC America.
That's well below the 62.5 million who watched the first debate between John Kerry and George W. Bush in 2004, and not even close to the 80.6 million who watched Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan square off on Oct. 28, 1980.
And considered another way -- by the percentage of American households who tuned in -- McCain and Obama were an absolute flop compared to previous presidential debates. Nielsen says 31.6 percent of U.S. homes were watching the debate. That's only about half as many as the 61 percent who tuned into the third Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960. If you compare just the first debates of the nine other election years in which the presidential candidates have squared off, McCain and Obama are tied for last with Bob Dole and Bill Clinton in 1996.
Knight Rider and Worst Week may be a ratings disappointment and critical -- flops isn't nearly a strong enough word; disembowelments? -- but at least one of the fall season's remakes has been a success. The CW has ordered another nine episodes of 90210, extending the show's run over the full season. And Shannon Doherty hasn't even been fired yet!
The producers of the CBS wife-swapping drama Swingtown were hoping that cable would be a lifeboat for the show, but it turns out to have a sizable leak. The cable net Bravo has purchased the right to rerun the 13 episodes that CBS aired this summer, but says it has no intention of producing any new ones. That means Swingtown, which averaged fewer than five million viewers an episode (and just under 2.1 million in the 18-to-49 age demo advertisers like), is all but officially dead. No way that CBS will absorb the full production costs of a primetime show with that small an audience.
What the Swingtown producers were hoping for was a deal like the one NBC cut for Friday Night Lights, which last season had similar ratings and was on the network's chopping block despite a generally good critical reception. Friday Night Lights survived after satellite provider DirecTV kicked in some money for the first-run rights to the show. You can see the results, if you're a DirecTV subscriber, at 9 p.m. Wednesday when the show's third season starts -- on satellite only. NBC won't air the new episodes until February.
Any fears that the change of venue would alter the texture of Friday Night Lights have proven groundless. Wednesday's debut episode is indistinguishable in tone, substance and style from the show that's been airing on NBC. Of course, the story is moving along. The only missing series regular is Jason Street, the star quarterback who was paralyzed with an injury during the show's very first episode. Tami Taylor, the coach's wife, has been promoted from Dillon High's guidance counselor to principal. And a new quarterback, with a pushy football dad, has transferred in, making some waves on the team. In short, if you liked Friday Night Lights on NBC, you'll like it on DirecTV. In fact, you might like it better: The DirecTV episodes will air without commercials and will include bonus footage that makes the episodes slightly longer. (Wednesday's show, for instance, is about 50 minutes, eight minutes longer than the episodes that run on NBC.)
You can find Friday Night Lights on DirecTV's channel 101. You Swingtown fans can watch and dream about what might have been.
That slogan "It's not TV, it's HBO'' has acquired an ironic ring the past couple of years as the network's programming went from can't-miss to can't-watch. Gourmet dishes like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Deadwood and Rome have been replaced with video equivalents of E. coli like Tell Me You Love Me and Lucky Louie. True Blood, the redneck vampire romp that kicked off earlier this month, offers some hope that HBO has gotten back on track with its dramas. But Little Britain USA and The Life & Times of Tim, which debut tonight, indicate that the comedies still have a long way to go. Read my full review in Sunday's Miami Herald.
Friday Night Lights (9 p.m. Wednesday, DirecTV) -- You pathetic Luddite fools still clinging to 20th century technology have to wait until February, when West Texas' sexiest, if not necessarily most skilled, high-school football team returns to NBC. But if you've got DirecTV's satellite service, you can see Friday Night Lights' new third season debut on channel 101. Dillon High has a new principal, a new quarterback and a whole new set of illicit romances to stew over.
Gabriel (9 p.m. Sunday, SBS) -- This sexy, scary new series about vampires might mark the beginning of the ned for Spanish-language telenovelas. Written and shot like a regular television series, Gabriel is the best thing on Spanish TV since...well, ever.
Dexter (9 p.m. Sunday, Showtime) -- In a vicious libel of South Florida that I, for one, will never forgive, the new season of Dexter that kicks off Sunday portrays a Miami that's running short on serial killers! So our murderous cop hero might have to use his power tools on, like, regular people. If you've got nominees, send me the names, and I'll forward them to Showtime.
Californication (10 p.m. Sunday, Showtime) -- Speaking of slicing and dicing, David Duchovny's horndog novelist Hank Moody is about to give in to the demands of his wife and get a vasectomy as the second season of Californication opens. Oh, and they're planning to move to Manhattan, so I guess the show will be renamed Newyorfornication. Otherwise, all's well on the dirtiest sitcom in the history of
Little Britain USA (10:30 p.m. Sunday, HBO) -- Check back later today for a full review of this comic-sketch show swiped from the BBC.
The Life & Times Of Tim (11 p.m. Sunday, HBO) -- Check back later today for a full review of this new adult cartoon.
The Ex List (9 p.m. Friday, CBS) -- In this new CBS series that's not exactly a comedy and not exactly a drama and not exactly good, Elizabeth Reaser (Grey's Anatomy) plays a florist who's told by a gypsy that if she doesn't marry one of her ex-boyfriends by the end of the year, she'll die alone and heartbroken. And, we can all pray, soon.
Preliminary Nielsen data from 55 cities where it operates so-called "people meters," set-top boxes that monitor television viewing, shows that a third of all TV sets were tuned into Friday night's debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. Nielsen won't release final data until Monday, but if the trend from the 55 metered markets holds steady, it would mean about 57 million people watched the debate.
The city with the highest percentage of viewers was St. Louis, where 52 percent of the TVs were tuned to the debate, reflecting either an inordinate civic-mindedness or a complete lack of actual lives, take your pick. The lowest was Phoenix, with only about 24 percent, which might mean that they're confident their guy McCain has already won, or that they're sick of him, take your pick again. South Florida was somewhere in the middle, with about 37 percent of the TVs on the debate.
Here's the complete list of Nielsen's metered markets. "Rating" means the percentage of all TV sets that were tuned to the debate; "share" is the percentage of TV sets that were actually in use that were tuned in.
Countless trees and electrons will give their lives over the next few days as newspapers, televison and yes, blogs like this one try to dope out who won Friday night's presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. And they'll almost all be wrong. If history tells us anything, it's that debates -- when they make a difference at all -- almost never turn on the sort of stuff that excites the chattering classes.
Columnists and commentators argued endlessly about whether John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon offered the best ideas to win the Cold War in the first televised debate in 1960. Nobody anticipated that voters would declare Kennedy the winner because he sweated less or looked more tan on camera. In 1980, the instant analysis almost unanimously favored Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan. It wasn't until after the election that the impact of Reagan's simple question to voters -- are you better off than you were four years ago? -- became apparent.
Much of the problem is that journalists and policy-wonk commentators inevitably evaluate debates in terms of the currency of their own little society -- the twinkletoes quip, the glib retort, the ability to quickly marshal facts into complete sentences and crisp paragraphs.
But voters don't equate articulation with intelligence -- surely neither of the malaprop-prone Bushes would ever have been elected if that were the case -- and in any event they don't see presidential elections as IQ tests. Surely no one thought Reagan was smarter than Carter, who never failed to remind us that he was a Rhodes scholar and an Evelyn Wood speed reader. Reagan, though, convinced voters that he shared their values, that the America he was headed for was the same one they wanted.
Of course, once in a while the debates offer up an obvious political bonecrusher: Gerald Ford claiming Poland was not part of the Soviet bloc, Lloyd Bentsen's instant evisceration of Dan Quayle. ("Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.")
But if there was a bleedout moment Friday night, it wasn't instantly obvious. The closest call may have been McCain's can-you-believe-this-guy swipe at Obama's stated desire to hold talks with Iran's ravingly anti-Semitic president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "So let me get this right," McCain said, rolling his eyes. "We sit down with Ahmadinejad and he says, 'We're gonna wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. And we say, 'Oh no you're not.' Oh, please."
McCain certainly landed his punch -- it was the only time all night that the audience in the hall broke into laughter -- and the jibe fit perfectly into one of his dominant narratives, that Obama lacks the experience to play on a world stage.
That's what (ital)can(ital) make a presidential debate decisive, a signature moment that either confirms or demolishes a campaign theme. Almost as important for Reagan in 1980 as his are-you-better-off question was his amiable but firm response to Carter's attacks: "There he goes again..." His geniality erased the portrait of Reagan that Carter had been painting for voters, that of a nuclear cowboy nutcase, a guy way too crazy to have his finger on the button.
But McCain's barb, edgy as it was, seemed unlikely to undo Obama's performance in the rest of the date: suave, loquacious, facts at his fingertips as he rattled off the names of the new generation of NATO members or reviewed McCain's record on Iraq. Whether you agree with his policy prescriptions or not, Obama didn't seem like a Bobbsey Twin on a foreign policy adventure.
Nor did McCain live down to his negative campaign stereotype, that of a querulous old grouch. Or, rather, he embraced it, repeating two or three times that he didn't win any Miss Congeniality awards in the Senate, always in there battling political pork.
In fact, these debates -- there are two more scheduled before the election -- seem unlikely to put either candidate in a new light. Far more likely is that voters will suffer debate exhaustion: Over the past 18 months, we've seen Obama in 23 debates and McCain in 15. If either of them were going to melt down, surely it would have happened by now. Doesn't this campaign have a fast-forward button?
Do Not Disturb, Fox's dismally unlaughable workplace sitcom about a boutique hotel, looks like it has checked out early. After three weeks of steadily ratings decline, Fox has yanked the episode scheduled for next week and replaced it with a rerun of 'Til Death, which itself doesn't exactly have M*A*S*H-like ratings. When stuff like that happens this early in the season -- especially at Fox, which is weirdly reluctant to announce cancellations -- it usually means the missing show won't return. For instance, we're still waiting to hear what happened to Fox's country-music reality show Nashville, which went missing after two episodes last season and has yet to be heard from. Perhaps someday explorers will find Nashville, Do Not Disturb, Pasadena, The Grubbs and The Ortegas, all snatched from the Fox lineup without even a muffled cry for help (the last two, in fact, before they even aired a single episode) wandering around in some forgotten jungle, like those Japanese soldiers from World War II who used to occasionally pop up in the Philippines.
John McCain has reversed course again. He's on a plane to Oxford, Mississippi where he'll take part in the first of three scheduled presidential debates with Barack Obama. McCain for the past couple of days had been saying he wouldn't participate, preferring to concentrate on joint White House/congressional talks on a federal bailout for the U.S. financial system.
The topic for Friday's debate is supposed to be American foreign policy. I wonder if either the candidates or moderator Jim Lehrer will be able to stick to that subject -- and if they do, whether viewers will stick around. This doesn't seem like a propitious moment for yet another rehash of whether the troop surged in Iraq worked or not. What's relatively unexplored in this campaign, and what everybody wants to know is what the candidates think about the financial bailout: whether it's necessary or wise, and what to do about the conditions that created it. Gotcha! questions about who's agriculture secretary of Kazakhstan are not going to hold anybody's attention.