Obama Enters the League of Must-See TV

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, October 31, 2008

"The Barack Obamamercial" is the first hit of this otherwise pretty dull television season.

Nearly 34 million viewers watched Wednesday's 30-minute infomercial for Democratic presidential candidate Obama, across seven TV networks.

That's a couple of million more than watched the "American Idol" finale in May, in which American voters crowned the Coroner Munchkin, a.k.a. David Cook, their new King of Made-for-TV Pop. And that finale was last season's most watched non-Super Bowl broadcast.

"The Barack Obamamercial" was a so-called time buy; networks sold the time to the Obama campaign to program as it liked. Officially called "Barack Obama: American Stories," the half-hour program featured vignettes (Obama called them "stories that reflect the state of our union") of American families whose hardships were meant to reflect the country's current economic strife. It aired on NBC, CBS, Fox, Univision, MSNBC, BET and TV One.

Meanwhile, how about that ABC? The network hemmed and hawed as to whether to sell the time slot to the Obama campaign or stick with airing its struggling "Pushing Daisies" in hopes it might finally gin up an audience, what with the distinct lack of scripted series competition at 8 p.m. that night. And while "Daisies" did clock its biggest audience so far this season -- 6.7 million viewers, about 1 million more than the previous week -- it suffered ignominious defeat at the hands of NBC's "Barack Obamamercial" (9.8 million viewers), CBS's "Barack Obamamercial" (8.6 million) and even Fox's "Barack Obamamercial" (7.1 million).

A post-"Obamamercial" appearance by the senator himself -- okay, via satellite -- on Comedy Central's "Daily Show" drove that late-night faux news show to its biggest numbers ever. An impressive 3.6 million people caught the appearance. Which, in one of those incredible coincidences that make covering TV so rewarding, is nearly identical to the number of people who watched "The Barack Obamamercial" on the actual cable news network MSNBC. The Obama program clocked 3.54 million viewers on that network. Almost as many people -- just under 3.5 million -- watched the program on Univision.

An additional 714,000 viewers watched the Obama campaign's time buy on BET, and still 307,000 others chose TV One.

According to Nielsen Media Research, 24 million "Obamamercial" viewers were white, 5.65 million were African American and slightly fewer than 5 million Hispanic.

Even if the Obama campaign did pay as much as $5 million total for the time buy -- press reports have put the price tag between $3 million and $5 million -- these Nielsen numbers mean it cost the candidate at most 15 cents per viewer, which, yes, is a great bargain in TV terms.

But lest you Obamanatics out there get too excited about these numbers, Nielsen reports that when weirdsmobile/presidential candidate Ross Perot bought time on ABC, CBS and NBC the night before the election in 1996, he managed to attract nearly 23 million viewers.

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NBC Universal 2.0-owned Bravo network says it has officially picked up "The Fashion Show," which sounds just different enough to pass the "Project Runway" rip-off test.

The cable net is calling the show its "newest fashion design creative competition series."

The difference is: Viewers will chose the ultimate winner, whose designs then will be sold by a retailer.

Bravo parent NBC Universal 2.0 is, you'll recall, locked in a death match with "Project Runway" production house the Weinstein Co. about whether Weinstein had the right to sell future editions of that show to Lifetime. NBCU filed a breach-of-contract suit in April; in September a New York State Supreme Court judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking the show's move to Lifetime. Disney-owned Lifetime has asked for the case to be moved to federal court.

"Project Runway" just finished its fifth season as Bravo's signature reality series.

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Bravo network says it's expanding its "arts and culture" slate with new development. Extra points if you can pick out which new shows are "arts" and which are "culture":

First, "Celebrity Sew-Off," in which "celebrities" will design, cut and, yes, actually stitch clothes in a competition to decide which of them has "the vision to go from icon to fashion star" and launch a clothing label, because we just don't have enough celebrity clothing labels.

Next, "Fashionality," in which four New Yorkers who've passed the NBC Universal 2.0 acid test and have been determined to be actual tastemakers from the worlds of "media and fashion" will dissect "all things stylish and glamorous" through field pieces, round-table debates and interviews.

Then, there's the docu-series "Double Exposure," in which "renowned art and fashion photographer Markus Klinko" and his partner-former girlfriend, photographer-model Indrani, give us a glimpse into their "fast-paced world of high fashion and celebrity photography." Bravo promises that when former lovers work together 18 hours a day in this "incredibly high-stress environment, filled with deadlines, stretched budgets, expensive locations and demanding talent," we're gonna see sparks to fly both on-camera and outside the frame. And sex, we hope -- lots of sex.

Which brings us to "Polo" -- a look at the "glamorous and competitive" lives of, Bravo assures, the world's most accomplished polo players, as well as "their beautiful wives and girlfriends."

And, finally, our favorite, "The Dubai Project," which, Bravo says, will follow a group of American and British expats -- and their entourages -- as they "make an indelible mark on this emirate . . . [and] pursue the 'American Dream' in the center of the Middle East."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company