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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?

"West Wing" producers and NBC look for a way to create "West Wing" event programming during the November sweeps to help goose ratings on the show, which has struggled mightily since being shipped to Sunday. How about a live debate? Great idea, they say, though Smits hasn't done much live performing and doesn't do well with improv, as he himself noted during a pre-debate phone news conference. How hard can it be, execs ask? Sure, it's live, but it'll be scripted and we'll give Smits lots of heroic lines such as: "What did liberals do that was so offensive to the Republican Party? I'll tell you what they did. Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. . . . So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, 'liberal,' as if it's something dirty, something to be ashamed of, something to run away from, it won't work, senator, because I will pick it up, and I will wear that label as a badge of honor."

Debate: Alda debones Smits.

Morning after: Numbers not so great and young viewers now strong for Alda to get presidential role next season. Great sweeps stunt turns into NBC headache.

Zogby rep Fritz Wenzel told The TV Column yesterday that the poll results show Smits "is a better scripted actor" and that Alda's Vinick "has a relatability" that Santos lacks.

Vinick "did much better than Santos" in the debate, Wenzel said, but even he was surprised that "there was so much movement in the numbers" in Vinick's favor.

"The other example we've had of an actor in the White House was right along the same lines as Vinick last night. Ronald Reagan was called the Great Communicator for a good reason. He was able to relate to people and not so much issue-to-issue but person-to-person."

* * *

TV years later, Connie Chung and Maury Povich have brought back from the dead their plans to do a show together.

This time for MSNBC, Saturday mornings, for 30 minutes. Starting Jan. 7.

MSNBC officially announced yesterday that the as-yet-unnamed Chung-Povich show will touch on "everything from politics to pop culture," "cut through the spin and get to the truth," "explore all sides of a story as only two people who have been married for 20 years can do" and "leave no cliche unused."

Okay, I made up that last one.

Chung and Povich tried before to launch a half-hour news and information series in 1996 with the then-new and ever-so-hot DreamWorks SKG, whose partners included the too-hip-to-live Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg. It was announced with great fanfare, but the syndicated show died before it was born, the victim of widespread lack of interest.

Nearly a decade later, according to a source with knowledge of the situation who did not want his name used because he has bills to pay and needs to keep his job in order to accomplish that, Povich's reps brought up the Chung-Povich idea earlier this year when negotiating his new contract to continue his syndicated show for NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution. Povich's show is ranked fourth among talk shows, behind "Oprah," "Dr. Phil" and "Live With Regis and Kelly."

MSNBC President Rick Kaplan, who can sometimes be quite sane, yesterday told the New York Times that Povich and Chung are the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn of TV.

For those not old enough to have met Hepburn or Tracy, she is the chick played by Cate Blanchett in the Martin Scorsese flick "The Aviator" who was the mistress of Leonardo DiCaprio and an actress born with a silver spoon in her mouth; Tracy was the guy Blanchett left DiCaprio for not long before DiCaprio started locking himself naked in his projection room and saving his urine in bottles. On-screen, Hepburn and Tracy defined witty, urbane, pretty and enormously talented; off-screen they were an item for a gazillion years, though Tracy was married to someone else.

In yesterday's news release, Povich and Chung did their best Tracy & Hepburn:

Povich: "It has taken me the last two decades to establish myself nationally as 'Maury Povich.' Something tells me I'm about to become 'Mr. Chung' once again."

Chung: "Maury's been on my case to get out of the house and get back to work, but I didn't want to until he came up with this idea. The question is not whether the program will last. . . . The question is 'Can our marriage survive?!' "

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