Commentary

'Desperate Housewives' Beats 'The Sopranos'--By The Numbers

With TV ratings, there is always safety in numbers. Swimming in data, TV researchers can create a whirlpool ready to take you down.

With this in mind--did "Desperate Housewives" hurt "The Sopranos" on Sunday night? Or was it the other way around?

TV business media hasn't yielded a clear picture. "The Sopranos" were off their previous season debut by some 21 percent in household ratings and 27 percent in adults 18-49 ratings. But "Housewives" also dropped some 11 percent versus its early season airings.

What does one make from this? Mediaweek says: "Housewives Whacks Sopranos."Medialife suggests: "Mob hit? ABC's 'Housewives' tumbles." Advertising Age opines: 'Sopranos' Let 'Housewives' Live." Daily Variety says: "Ladies Night for Sure."

Get the picture? No one seems really sure. That's good news for TV networks' researchers. Their job: Find numbers to sell the story. A plethora of demographic, household income, age and genre figures always gives you countless scenarios.

The build-up was a natural one--especially since "The Sopranos" has been off the air for so long, and since "Housewives" has been so strong. But the fight wasn't held on equal footing.

Any TV researcher worth his or her salt knows HBO only gets to about a third of the possible viewers that "Housewives" does (though HBO could conceivably adds more viewers through its on-demand showing of the series). To think that "Sopranos"'s 9.5 million viewers even remotely measure up to "Housewives'" 22.2 million viewers is crazy and misleading.

To be fair, some business publications did point out "Sopranos" to "Sopranos" comparisons and, separately, "Housewives" to "Housewives" analysis. But hardly any brought up the well-known differences between the HBO pay-TV households and ABC's broadcast-TV households.

The good news/bad news picture for HBO is this: Its ratings don't sell advertisers, only image, especially that "It's not TV, it's HBO" profile. I'd agree that with no advertising and no real access to two-thirds of U.S. TV households, HBO surely isn't TV. Not in its current form. Perhaps in the future Yahoo! or Google Video or AOL could also make this restricted claim.

Surely "Housewives" had more viewers than "The Sopranos"? But didn't "Housewives" also lose some steam as well? Well, that's the dilemma of a reporter and editor in this complex, TV and growing on-demand video, world. There is always the "on the other hand."

With all that in mind, how about this as a new lead: "'Desperate Housewives' beat 'The Sopranos' on Sunday night. On the other hand, it was not a fair fight. 'The Sopranos' had one hand tied behind its back. Blame Tony Soprano, who always has a soft spot for beautiful women---who, if tied to a bedpost, are even happier. Surely any desperate housewife can understand."

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