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TV Ratings Tell Many Compelling Stories: Conan is Slipping, "Harper's Island" is Sinking, "Daisies" Wipes Out, But "Wipeout" Doesn't
June 10, 2009  | By David Bianculli

tonight-show-conan-obrien-y.jpgAudience figures for current shows are telling some surprising stories, from a late-night turnaround to some obvious summer losers and winners. Dave has caught Conan, Wipeout is doing surprisingly well, and so is Obama.

The most significant ratings news of late is what's happening in late-night. It's very early, and there's a difference between overall audience figures and the demographic breakdowns -- but since Conan O'Brien took over NBC's The Tonight Show from Jay Leno, the euphoria over his premiere-night ratings has sagged nightly. As have his ratings.


Tuesday's Late Show with David Letterman on CBS, in which Julia Roberts proved a delightfully feisty talk-show guest (she even busted Paul for reading a song list instead of paying attention to her as she spoke to Dave: "Am I on NIGHTLY?"), ended up beating O'Brien in the overall overnight ratings for the first time. Since the Tonight Show switched hosts last week and started with a 7.1 rating, the nightly trajectory has been all downhill: 5.0, 4.3, 3.8, 3.5, 3.1 and, Tuesday night, 2.9, compared to Letterman's 3.4.

O'Brien still claims younger demographics, and it's very, very early in this game. But the if trend projected by those figures makes anyone at NBC anything other than panicked, that person, most likely, is Jay Leno. Meanwhile, at CBS, Hollywood Reporter and The New York Times have reported that Letterman has all but signed an extension deal with CBS. If true, that's good news for him, for CBS, for viewers, AND for Craig Ferguson, who stands to gain from this latest round of late-night plate tectonics as well.



Another downward-trending bit of ratings news has to do with Harper's Island, which premiered in April and was supposed to be CBS's big, Survivor-meets-Saw summer TV event. After a few outings on Thursday, CBS banished the Island dwellers to Saturday, where audience levels have dwindled ever since. One month ago, an hour of the grisly murders on Harper's Island drew 4.6 million viewers. The most recent installment drew 3.6, a substantial drop. Good news, because Harper's is horrendous.



Unfortunately, the ratings for ABC's Pushing Daisies have been horrendous, too. Also banished to a Saturday summer slot, the penultimate episode of Daisies drew only 2.3 million viewers, ranking it in 90th place for the week. For one of TV's best and most entertaining shows, that's a sin. But it's the fault of ABC, not the show's creators or stars, because the network scheduled it abominably during and after the writers' strike.

This Saturday is the very last first-run episode of Pushing Daisies. After that, sadly, the show will be... pushing daisies.


Also, there's ABC's I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, which has drawn less than half the audience, so far, that ABC did when it ran its own version of the series in six years ago. Viewership went from 6.4 million to 5.5, 4.8, then bounced back to 5.2 Thursday and 5.3 yesterday.


But the bump probably was because Heidi and Spencer were so unbelievably rude and self-absorbed, they were almost perversely intriguing. They're gone now, and the show, which was wretched to begin with, is no better for their absence.

Put it this way: With all their pious and brainless blather about praying to Jesus for guidance, Heidi and Spencer -- and castaway co-star Stephen Baldwin, who baptized Spencer in a nearly stream (honest) -- have done to promote atheism than anyone on TV this side of Bill Maher.



And, finally, there's this to ponder. ABC's Wipeout, the show with human crash-test dummies (emphasis on both crash and dummies), isn't wiping out in its sophomore season, but last week drew 8.4 million on Wednesday and another 3.7 in a Saturday rerun, for a total of 12.1 million viewers for the week. The Wednesday showing was good enough for a Top 15 finish in the week's ratings.

Meanwhile, NBC's two-part documentary on the Obama White House drew 9.2 million the first night and 9 the second, good enough to land both installments in the week's Top 10. So when America votes for both Obama and Wipeout, what's a network to do?

Answer: Whatever it wants. With that kind of data, a network can justify taking either the high road or the low road. Watch which way they head this fall, and you'll know which networks are more tasteful -- and which are more cynical.

(Any bets on which way NBC lands?)




Tom said:

A recap: Ratings for Celebrity Apprentice were helped by the confluence of the raging waters of the RIvers' women against the poker player; Jon and Kate Plus Eight got even better numbers after the tabs (followed by so-called legit news organizations) played up their allegedly troubled marriage; Heidi and Spencer play even-more bizarrely for the gossip network and this sorry series shows increases in audience size.
Are the networks pulling the strings of the gullible even more blatantly than ever? If so, will the manipulation multiply to larger, more ridiculous proportions, or will this thing play out quickly, once the suckers walk away from the rigged game?
Though they were wily in their own ways, network founders WIlliam Paley, David Sarnoff and Leonard Goldenson probably have dropped heavenly cable and celestially disowned their corporate offspring.

(Mr. Brinkmoeller -- I knew with the "heavenly cable" phrase that this HAD to be our own Tom Brinmoeller. And it is. Hi, Tom! Not writing enough on the site as it is? Have to write comments, too? Boy, what I'd give to have your energy. - David B.)

Comment posted on June 10, 2009 3:33 PM

Curtis said:

So, how's Nightline doing? Seems when Ted Koppel was hosting they used to post numbers that were better than Dave or Jay [and sometimes sometimes added together].

The wife and I have hit the last two weeks of Harper's for the last half hour or so and aside from the fairly bad acting and the fact that we are clueless about what's going on it looks like it may have had promise. Considering that it's got a limited run we may keep watching it. Of course we don't have satellite or cable for that matter. I didn't understand Lost at all either when I first started watching and now we're all DVD box sets and "How are we gonna wait until January.

Lastly, I watched the first week of Conan and there has been some very funny stuff - blasting Twitter, the Tonight Show Traffic copter was pure "Late Night" - and the Tonight Show Orchestra is now back to being the best band on TV unequivocally [did I spell that right?]. The problem is that I miss the intimacy of the small studio in NY. Even Carson's studio was pretty small in comparison to Leno's. It just doesn't feel right somehow. And Andy Richter is way under-utilized so far.

The good thing is now I don't have to switch back and forth to TV's Craig Ferguson anymore.

(If you hone in on the 18-49 demo, Nightline still comes in second, earning a 1.0 rating to The Tonight Show's 1.4 rating and Letterman's .9 -- but those pre-Conan launch numbers need to be updated... and will be, tomorrow. And yes, your spelling was correct. -- David B.)

Comment posted on June 10, 2009 4:19 PM

Rich said:

Hmmmm, an Obama Doc. and a show called "Wipe-Out" both from the same network gaining unexpected numbers. Obama Doc. and "Wipe-Out"?...I think there's a Johnny Carson Karnak joke in there somewhere.

I wouldn't worry about summer viewing patterns. A wise man once man an analogy that as the country deals great strife and turmoil (Abroad, Domestic, Economic, Political, ect) It's entertainment choices become more 'escapist', dumb down, and less worthy of critical praise. Given that theroy, I dare say we are all in for "The Summer of Plastic Crap"...It might even spill into the Fall. Plus, as lay-offs and unemployment reaches 10% by Oct. All that free time could ruin TV viewing patterns and erode the very bounderies of the established norms.

As for Conan? His audience is out enjoying the Summer. Wait till college starts again- then I'd be worried.

(Really good point about Conan and the college crowd. Hadn't occurred to me. And just in case I misled anyone, Wipeout is on ABC, while the Obama special was NBC. I know Wipeout is bad enough to be ON the Peacock Network, but not this time. Though, in a few years, NBC might present a revival, as it's going now with the former ABC disaster "I'm a Celebrity..." -- David B.)

Comment posted on June 10, 2009 10:55 PM

Toby O'B said:

When it comes to applying blame for the downfall of 'Pushing Daisies', I'd also have to lay it at the feet of the audience. I don't know the figures when it comes to the percentage of the audience who have DVR/TiVo capability, but I would think it's significant enough to make some impact. How hard is it to set the functions to seek out this show no matter what night it would be on?

And recalling your Tele-Literacy analogy of program/channel searching to a visit to a bookstore, something this good was worth the effort to dig deep and track it down. That the audience failed to do so means they deserve the Jon&Kate/Octomom/Speidi crap they'll end up getting.

Sadly, those of us who do like the unique quality programs, like 'Pushing Daisies', have to suffer because of the others.

I'll get off my soapbox now. The height is making me dizzy....

(But you're absolutely right. My standard quote, applied to both TV ratings and democracy, is that "It'd be great if not for all the ****ing people."And quoting from Teleliteracy... boy, do you know how to bring a smile to an author's heart. -- David B.)

Comment posted on June 11, 2009 4:56 AM

Patrick ( Louisville ) said:

I have to disagree with Tom on the DVR crowd. Daisies was in our DVR queue, but when news came of its cancellation, it was regrettably taken off. The only reason why I knew about its coda is TVWW. There was literally no other press about it. The complete lack of information points to the fault of the network, not the audience.

Also, for your human crash test dummy comedy, I would suggest MXC instead of Wipeout. It's the original Japanese game show with intentionally sophomoric dubbing, and its been on for at least half a decade. You didn't think a US network could come up with a popular show on their own, did you?

Comment posted on June 11, 2009 9:47 AM
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