Did the rest of the country learn nothing from the way Florida messed up the 2000 election? Why on earth would they have let us do a World Series here? Well, those who do not remember history are condemned to suffer agonizingly small Nielsen ratings. Tampa Bay and Philadelphia drew the smallest TV audience in the entire history of the World Series, and it wasn't even close: The average audience of 13.6 million viewers was 14 percent lower than the 15.8 million who watched the 2006 Series between Detroit and St. Louis. All I can say is, America, is look out Tuesday.
Barack Obama certainly pulled in the eyeballs Wednesday night. Nielsen says that 33.6 million people were watching his half-hour commercial that appeared at 8 p.m. on CBS, NBC, Fox, Univision, BET, MSNBC and TV One. That's 10 million more than Ross Perot's ad on ABC, NBC and CBS drew in 1996, though it's not an exact comparison because Perot's ad appeared at different times and lengths on each network.
Obama's ad was also a boon to ABC's Pushing Daisies, Obama's only competition on a major broadcast network Wednesday night. The Pushing Daisies audience was up 16 percent over last week -- probably not as much as ABC was hoping, but nothing to sneeze at, either.
The Ex List is ex-tinct. CBS has pulled the plug on its estrogen-rage drama less than a month after its debut. That's not a record for CBS -- I'd guess last season's bizarre musical drama Viva Laughlin!, dumped after two episodes, probably has the title as the most-quickly canceled CBS show of all time -- but it's still fast for a network that usually tries to avoid having an itchy trigger finger. The CBS research department must have had some pretty ugly-looking data on The Ex List.
The Ex List was an American adaptation of an Israeli show, part of an unprecedented wave of imports in the wake of the Hollywood writers' strike that wrecked the television development season earlier this year. Of the 12 new scripted series this fall on the Big Four networks (CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox), five were adapted from foreign shows: CBS' Worst Week (Great Britain), NBC's Kath & Kim (Australia), ABC's Life On Mars (Great Britain), CBS' Eleventh Hour (Great Britain) and The Ex List. Guess what? They're all ratings flops. It turns out that what's a hit overseas won't necessarily be a hit here (and, no doubt, vice-versa).
Network executives pronounce themselves perplexed by this, but it's really not all that complicated. Different countries and different cultures respond to different things. The class humor that drives Kath & Kim is a television staple in England and Australia, but American audiences have never gone for it. Worst Week, an entire sitcom built around a single disastrous week in the life of a couple, may work in Great Britain, where a television season only lasts five or six episodes, but it's just nuts to think you can stretch it out from October through May here. Foreign outsourcing may work for some American industries, but this fall's results show pretty clearly that television isn't one of them.
The producers of Fox's Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? invited Barack Obama, John McCain, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, and Arnold Schwarzenegger to appear on the show. They all refused. So did Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams and Barbara Walters. What? No invitation for Bill O'Reilly?
For some odd reason, ABC has been left out of Wednesday night's all-Barack-Obama-television marathon. The Obama campaign has bought the entire 8-8:30 p.m. time slot from CBS, NBC and Fox, for about $1 million a shot...but not from ABC. That's good news for ABC's Pushing Daisies, the poignant and charming comedy-drama about a pie-maker who can bring the dead back to life. (Insert your own joke about the McCain campaign here.) The show's ratings have been in steady decline this fall -- but now it gets the television equivalent of a free kick, an airing with essentially no broadcast opposition, unless it turns out that Obama is planning to burn Bill Ayres at the stake during his infomercial. (You think I'm joking, but the Obama campaign won't breathe a word about what it plans to air.) If Pushing Daisies picks up a couple of extra million viewers Wednesday, that pie-maker won't be the only guy who gets credit for raising the dead.
A bunch of network shows have been picked up for the full season over the past week or so, but you don't hear the bosses crowing about it the way they used to. There's a good reason for that: Ratings for the fall season have been utterly underwhelming, and some of the shows that have been renewed have audiences so small they would have been axed in the past. NBC's Knight Rider and Fox's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles are the two most obvious examples of the networks' new math -- shows that as little as two years ago would have been cancellation-bait. ABC's Private Practice has mediocre numbers. Of the pickups, only CBS' The Mentalist, averaging around 15 million viewers, can be viewed as a genuine success story.
The drop in viewers this season has been abrupt and widespread, cutting through all the various age and gender demographics and time-slot demographics that TV executives use to parse the ratings. In the key 18-to-49 age bracket, for instance, NBC has lost 19 percent of its viewers from last fall, ABC 18 percent, Fox 15 percent and CBS 8 percent. The drop has been most obvious in the 10 p.m. time slot, where NBC's Lipstick Jungle and My Own Worst Enemy, ABC's Life On Mars and Dirty Sexy Money and CBS' With A Trace have all done lousy business.
The networks are offering all kinds of exotic theories -- blaming TiVo and other digital-video recording devices is a popular one -- but won't face up to the most obvious cause: last season's writers' strike. Many of the views driven off during the three months of reruns and cheapie reality shows broke their TV habit -- or at least, their broadcast network habit -- and haven't returned. Not that the nets have give them any compelling reason to do so: Because the strike squashed the TV development season, the fall season was dotted with new shows that are half-baked adaptations of foreign programs. Kath & Kim and The Ex List are perfectly capable of flopping on their own, without any help from TiVo.
You'd think the sinking Nielsen numbers, coupled with the generally awful state of the American economy, would convince Hollywood to do anything it can to avoid another strike. You'd be wrong. Contract talks between the Screen Actors Guild and the studios have deteriorated to the point where a federal mediator has gotten involved -- the same guy whose last Hollywood mediation ended with the writers' strike. The way this is going, Americans may have to actually start reading books again.
About a week ago, I posted a short piece here about how Roger Ebert walked out on a movie after eight minutes but nonetheless wrote a detailed review of it for the Chicago Sun-Times. I confessed to feeling the same temptation many a time, but never giving into it. It started a round of discussions among other Herald critics, some of whom have walked out on shows they were reviewing, some of whom haven't. Finally we decided the whole thing would make an interesting story, which appears in Sunday's paper. Among other things, it functions as a sort of Miami Herald Worst Popular Art Of All Time list, since everybody cited an example of something they've had to watch or listen to that made them suicidal. In other words, a perfect list of potential Christmas presents for people you hate. Enjoy.
D.H. Lawrence's famous dictum to trust the art, not the artist, has never truer than when it comes to rock and roll. From the dumber-than-a-stump Cher (for a long time, she thought the presidential faces on Mount Rushmore were natural rock formations) to the gets-his-U.S.-history-from-cereal boxes Bruce Springsteen (he thinks the country's been in a depression for the past 35 years), the rock world is full of people who songs are great and heads are empty.
Now it seems that the greatest rock icon of all was also the greatest hypocrite. Philip Norman's new biography John Lennon: The Life documents in painstaking detail the philandering love life, personal cruelty and financial ruthlessness of the guy who wrote All You Need Is Love. As somebody once wrote, It's the dirty story of a dirty man. Read my full review from Sunday's Miami Herald.
30 Rock (9:30 p.m. Thursday, NBC) How hot is Tina Fey? She has won two acting Emmys in a row, and her send-ups of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live have sent its ratings soaring to the highest levels in years. (A week ago, an SNL episode with Fey and Palin was the highest-rated show on the entire network.) So let's see if all the buzz translates to some viewers for the season debut of 30 Rock, the vicious workplace satire that's the funniest sitcom on TV that nobody watches.
Inside New Orleans High (10 p.m. Sunday, National Geographic Channel) -- New way to scare your kids: Threaten to send them to Walter L. Cohen High School in New Orleans, where more money is spent on security than on books, one in six girls is pregnant, and only 25 percent of the senior class goes on to college. During the six months this documentary was being made, at least four students were shot.
Primal Fear (9 p.m. Monday, History Channel) -- A documentary on humans' most basic instinctual fears, which include sharks, snakes, suffocation and Walter L. Cohen High.
Paranormal State (10 p.m. Monday, A&E) -- A group of Penn State students performs an exorcism. No, not on the football team, though "demonic possession'' would explain a lot about how the 496-year-old Joe Paterno is still coaching.
Coolio's Rules (10 p.m. Tuesday, Oxygen) -- A reality show about the rapper who recorded Gangsta's Paradise (‘‘I'm a loped-out gangsta, set-trippin banger/And my homies is down, so don't arouse my anger'') trying to raise four daughters as a single parent. When they screw up, he threatens to send them to Walter L. Cohen High.
Legend of the Seeker (8 p.m. Saturday, WSFL-CW 39) -- Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, the guys who created Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, are back with another syndicated fantasy epic. (It won't necessarily air in this time slot outside South Florida.) This new series stars Craig Horner (Monarch Cove) as a magician battling an evil tyrant and Bridget Regan (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) as his bodyguard. I don't know why the magician can't just turn his enemies into frogs and save that bodyguard salary, but they probably explain it in Season Six.
The CW's Sunday-night lineup has been so disastrous, for so long, that the network in effect subleased the night to an outside company this fall. Media Rights Capital, which also produces some shows for HBO and Lifetime, programmed and produced the entire slate of Sunday-night CW shows that debuted this month. Result: an even bigger mess than before. The lineup averaged just 692,000 viewers last weekend, and one show -- Easy Money -- had such a tiny audience that it showed up as zero in the Nielsen ratings. Predictably, somebody's head had to be lopped off, and Media Right's Capital's president Keith Samples has won (or lost) the lottery; color him gone.
The sad thing about this is that one of the shows Samples' company produced is really pretty good, one of the two or three best dramas of the new season. Easy Money is an inventive and intriguing tale of a loanshark storefront and its down-at-the-heels customers that should resonate with viewers as the real American economy comes down around their heads.
But to The CW's post-Barbie audience, Easy Money probably seems like like an import from Mars, and I don't mean Veronica. This is the network of 90210, Gossip Girl, Supernatural, Smallville and One Tree Hill. I ordinarily roll my eyes when broadcast networks talking about branding -- I don't think viewers tune in Lost because it's on ABC, but because it's Lost. But The CW is a definite exception. It's targeted with laser intensity on women age 13 to 34. I'm not sure anybody else even knows it exists. There was just no way for Easy Money to succeed in that environment.
The uncomfortable mix of programming strategies at The CW looks even worst because the network's teeny-bopper shows are really starting to take off this fall. Gossip Girl, which last season had lots of buzz and very view viewers, has finally started pulling them in. 90210 is a hit, at least by The CW's standards, and One Tree Hill is collecting the best ratings of its six-year run. By the end of the season, I don't think it will be just Samples who's been fired, but his entire company.