Vinick Sways Voters, er, Viewers on 'West Wing'

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, November 8, 2005

After watching the live debate between Jimmy Smits's Rep. Matt Santos (D-Tex.) and Alan Alda's Sen. Arnold Vinick (R-Calif.) on "The West Wing," young viewers have changed their minds about the two faux candidates and want Alda in the White House.

Viewers 65 and older, however, came out strong for Santos, according to a survey by pollster Zogby International conducted right after Sunday's broadcast on NBC.

Yes, Jimmy Smits now skews older than Alan Alda.

For a network that chases young viewers exclusively but has seen its median age spring forward by nearly three years in one season -- from 46.4 to 49.2 years -- this ought to stop the suits in their tracks. Particularly since the network made it fairly clear it intend to put Smits in the Oval Office (his face, but not Alda's, is featured in the group mug shot on the home page of NBC's "West Wing" Web site, for instance.)

Despite a boatload of pre-broadcast hype, the debate episode did little to move the ratings needle -- the show averaged about 9.6 million viewers in the 8 p.m. hour, according to stats. That's its biggest audience this season -- which isn't saying much, since it's averaging only 8.2 million viewers. And the broadcast still finished third in its time period, pounded by ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (18 million viewers) and CBS's "Cold Case" (16 million). More important to NBC's sales department, "West Wing" finished a distant fourth in its time period among 18-to-49-year-olds, which the network says is the only age bracket it sells to advertisers.

But those numbers aren't half so interesting as the ones spit out by pollster Zogby yesterday, showing how much ground Smits's Santos lost to Alda's Vinick in the debate, despite obvious efforts to make Santos look heroic.

Before the episode, viewers between 18 and 29 preferred Santos over Vinick, 54 percent to 37 percent. But after the debate, in which veteran Alda gutted pretty-boy Smits without him even knowing it, Vinick now leads among viewers under age 30, 56 percent to 42 percent.

(Among viewers 65 and older -- or, as TV execs like to call them, the Irrelevantest Generation -- Santos has a lead of 68 percent to 27 percent.)

Also switching camps were men, whom the networks have a harder time attracting than women and therefore chase harder. (The TV industry is a lot like dating: If you hang around a lot, the suits ignore you; play hard to get, they chase you with a passion.)

Among men, Vinick now leads with 55 percent to Santos's 39 percent.

Women were the only ones who did not change their minds after watching Alda fillet his opponent. Before the debate, women came out very strong for ever-so-handsome Smits/Santos; post-debate, they were just as pro-Santos, 68 percent to 23 percent. Really, why did they give women the vote?

Let's review, shall we?

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