October 20, 2008

ratings shmatings

Rosie O'Donnell just signed a deal with NBC for a one-hour variety show to run on Thanksgiving eve. She's been pretty vocal about her desire to only return to television for a variety-type program. This is her chance, and it will feature music, comedy, celebs, and giveaways. If successful, NBC might make it a regular program. My question: Is there still an audience for something like this? At one time, Rosie was the queen of daytime, but she's alienated quite a few people in recent years. Who will watch it? Sure Sonny & Cher were huge, but isn't this format a little outdated?

This opens a whole can of worms about trends in television that could have me going on forever. There's no secret that reality programming has excelled considerably because it's cheap and there is a market for watching real people humiliate themselves on national television. But if you look at trends in scripted television, it's a little more difficult to diagnose.

I won't go into the history of the procedural drama and the rise and fall of the sitcom because we will be here all day, and I know you have other blogs with which you need to procrastinate. But I think this season serves as a bit of a litmus test for modern television.

The season opened with a decent variety of comedy and drama with some stale, but more inventive programming, which is good to see. For a few years, networks were a little gun shy about putting out anything too creative. Thus, 27 different iterations of both Law & Order and CSI. Procedural dramas are still huge, and that speaks to the audience. Shows like Law & Order require little effort on the part of the viewer, there's no storyline to follow, but instead a mini-movie each week. Gone are the days of primetime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty, which audiences followed religiously.

But newer shows like Lost have tried to bring back that dedicated audience and have proved there is still a market for it. A little more fantasy and imagination seems to be winning out - maybe as reality is feeling a little dim, viewers are looking for more escapism.

This brings us to what the ratings are looking like for some of my favorite new shows this season. Pushing Daisies - possibly the most brave move by a network in a while - is a crime investigation story set in a complicated fantasy land with storybook narration and a sweet love story. It's weird, really weird. But SO well done, and so fun to watch. Unfortunately, ratings are in the pooper. This is not a huge surprise. Is it too weird? Not mass-marketable? What about a show like Chuck? Here's another semi-weird, but much more consumer friendly new show. It has drama, action, comedy, fun characters, attractive actors. The full recipe really. Rating also not so hot. Thankfully, NBC is determined to make this one succeed and has already ordered a full season (that almost never happens before fall sweeps).

Another example is Eli Stone, which premiered last week. Here's a show that combines the cosmic influence of a higher power with overtly issue-oriented and politically-motivated topics. The premiere actually featured villainous mortgage lenders. But it has music numbers! I think it can be best described as Ally McBeal meets Quantum Leap. Again, ratings are slim to start, but ABC has already ordered four more scripts. A good sign.

I should add that a few old standbys are in danger too. Last week, Grey's Anatomy slipped to almost 5 million fewer viewers than CSI in the 18-32 age group. The show is boasting the lowest ratings in history. Then you have a show like House - what I consider an almost perfect combination of the procedural and plot-driven drama - which is actually the highest rated scripted television show.

I'm rambling, but what I basically want to find out is what balance of audience interest and network support will save shows this year? November sweeps are around the corner - a period of intense rating measuring where networks make huge splashes to boost ratings for the advertisers and subsequently, big decisions about the fate of their lineup. We'll see where the dust settles.


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