'American Idol' Viewers Desert Ship of State

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, February 2, 2006

With the aid of a belly dancer, a self-spanker, a faux Rastafarian, a pet hoarder, an adorable set of twins, and a mess of delusional people in Las Vegas, President Bush was able to snare an audience of about 42 million people for his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Because, yes, the president snagged his biggest SOTU crowd on the Fox broadcast network, compliments of an "American Idol" lead-in.

Bush's address clocked about 8.2 million viewers on Fox, according to Nielsen stats.

That beats NBC's 8 million, ABC's and CBS's 7.7 million each, Fox News Channel's 6.5 million, CNN's 2.2 million and MSNBC's 707,000 viewers, according to the stats.

Officially, Nielsen doesn't put out ratings for individual broadcast networks on the State of the Union address. That's because it runs on those networks without advertising and, like that whole Tree in the Forest Thing (you know, no one around to hear it fall, did it make a noise? that you discussed at great length in some middle-school class the day you had a substitute teacher looking to keep you quiet for an hour with as little effort as possible), Nielsen maintains that a program run without advertising on an ad-supported network did not actually happen, or something like that.

Nielsen, however, did note late yesterday that the speech accumulated that audience of 41.699 million viewers across ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, CNN, FNC, MSNBC and Telemundo.

That's about 3 million more than last year, when Bush suffered the embarrassment of scoring SOTU's second-smallest audience in the past 12 years or more, not far ahead of President Bill Clinton's post-impeachment audience of 32 million.

Though Bush clocked his biggest numbers on the Fox broadcast network, that's not to say he did such a hot job retaining the "Idol" audience. In its final half-hour, Tuesday's episode -- set in Las Vegas and featuring auditions of the above-mentioned Idol wannabes -- the singing competition logged 33 million viewers.

In his first half-hour of speechifying, Bush averaged about 9.5 million viewers on Fox. That's a lousy 29 percent retention rate, which would get him canceled faster than he could say "Emily's Reasons Why Not" if he were a TV series.

But, thankfully, he's not. And, by 9:30 p.m., which is how long it took another 3 million Fox viewers to realize the president wasn't just another bad audition for "American Idol," that network's contribution to the SOTU audience had plunged to 6.9 million viewers.

And, hey, speaking of UPN: In the past, UPN and WB networks have had great luck on SOTU night, counterprogramming the speech with entertainment fare for the millions of disenfranchised who don't care to listen to our commander in chief string sound bites together for an hour.

This year, some UPN stations owned by News Corp. and now overseen by FNC chief Roger Ailes went with the speech.

That includes our fair city's WDCA, on which the speech opened with about 9,000 viewers and, by the end, was left with about 4,000, though it peaked in the middle with about 13,000 viewers.

On our market's WB station, WBDC, the teen-angst Superman drama "Supernatural" enjoyed about 67,000 viewers at 9 p.m., winding up with about 103,000 viewers at 10 p.m.

News Corp.-owned UPN stations that carried the State of the Union address also include the station in New York City -- the nation's largest TV market.

Which may help explain why, nationally, "Supernatural" set a new all-time series ratings record with an average of nearly 6 million viewers, leading WB to put out a news release with the following headline:

"Great Sampling Opportunity Is Not Missed Against the State of the Union Address."

* * *

CBS White House correspondent John Roberts, publicly nicked by suits at his network searching for Dan Rather's replacement, gracefully segued over to CNN yesterday.

The cable news network announced he had been named a senior national correspondent, starting Feb. 20, reporting for various programs on its lineup throughout the day.

Roberts, who has anchored the Sunday edition of the "CBS Evening News" for ages and has been the news division's chief White House correspondent for six years, was widely considered to have been groomed to succeed Rather, who bowed out under fire last March in the wake of the division's botched report on President Bush's National Guard service.

But the odds on Roberts softened as weeks went by with no announcement. Then, CBS topper Leslie Moonves told reporters he might even nuke the whole single-anchor format for his mired-in-third-place evening newscast.

After that, reports surfaced that CBS was going after America's Sweetheart Katie Couric for the gig. Last month, at the Winter TV Press Tour 2006, new CBS News chief Sean McManus dodged all Couric questions but acknowledged it was "probably the case" that he would seek an outsider for the anchor chair.

"I'm not sure we have anyone who has the qualifications that the anchor should have," McManus explained. "Part of that may be that there hasn't been quite enough emphasis on developing the next anchor."

During the scrum that followed his official Q&A session, McManus was asked specifically whether Roberts was part of his plans for the broadcast.

"In my mind, no, he is not," he replied, according to TV Guide's Web site. "He's been an excellent White House correspondent, but we're looking in a different direction."

Yesterday, Roberts graciously said that "while it was an honor at one point to have been considered on that short list" of possible Rather replacements, he has a "more well-rounded life" than to have considered that his only career path.

"It became clear through December and early January . . . they were looking in a different direction for their main anchor and when you're the White House correspondent, you have limited number of options where you go from the White House," he told The TV Column. "I've been here 6 1/2 years; it was probably time for a shake-up."

Yesterday, in a memo to CBS News colleagues, Roberts said, "I truly believe that journalism is one of those 'higher callings' -- and I will feel forever blessed that I had the opportunity to spend the lion's share of my career at CBS."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company