We yielded to 'Temptations' Ratings: Baltimore's TV-watchers tuned in to the NBC miniseries in staggering numbers.

Radio and Television

November 11, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

America loved "The Temptations" miniseries, but nobody loved it like Baltimore.

Nationally, 45 million people watched last week's two-night, four-hour NBC film about the Motown singing group, according to Nielsen ratings released yesterday. That makes "The Temptations" a hit by any standard, especially since it was up against such November "sweeps" counterprogramming as an Oprah Winfrey "presents" movie on ABC, a Chuck Norris made-for-TV film on CBS and the creatures from Jurassic Park on Fox.

But the Nielsen figure that is absolutely staggering is that one out of every three TVs in the Baltimore market that were turned on from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Nov. 1 and 2 was tuned to "The Temptations."

In the new TV universe of 50 and 60 channels, that simply doesn't happen any more short of a Super Bowl.

The Baltimore audience even nosed out Motown itself -- Detroit had a 32 share, or percentage of TV sets in use, while Baltimore had a 33 share. In addition, the number watching the show in Baltimore was almost as large as the combined audience for the ABC, CBS and Fox affiliates here.

"It's a phenomenal success -- the performance of 'The Temptations' -- nationally and in Baltimore," said Emerson Coleman, vice president and director of broadcast operations at WBAL (Channel 11), the NBC affiliate in Baltimore. "But the Baltimore numbers are just exceptional. In fact, they'll probably be shocking to some people. They certainly make you stop and think."

Coleman, who grew up in Baltimore and has spent most of his professional career here at WJZ and WBAL, says an analysis of the ratings for "The Temptations" has to start with another Baltimore television fact: Among the top 30 television markets in the country, Baltimore has the largest percentage of African-American viewers. One out of every four viewers here is African-American.

"So, I think the base of support, perhaps, came from the very large percentage of black TV viewers here in Baltimore," Coleman said. "But, clearly, to get that large a number, it had to go beyond that base to enjoy a wider range of [crossover] support."

Coleman says there are other factors that helped make the miniseries such a hit here, like a "great history of rhythm and blues radio stations" in the area. Those stations planted the seeds of what today is shared memory, bringing the songs of The Temptations to black and white listeners over the years, especially in the 1960s, when the group was a hit-making machine.

In addition, says Coleman, "this film was very focused. It wasn't 'The Wonderful Motown Years' or 'Motown's Top 50 Songs' or something, there was a story here.

"And the Temptations were such a singular group. You know the characters in the same way that you might be able to name who the Beatles are. A lot of Baltimore's population go, 'It's Eddie, David, Otis and Melvin.' " On "Melvin," Coleman drops his voice into the bass range of Melvin Franklin.

Coleman says the national success of "The Temptations" will serve as a "great springboard for the networks to look at similar stories" from the African-American experience.

Overall, the broadcast networks have done a poor job of programming to the large middle-class, black audience typified by the Baltimore market, while pay cable channels like HBO and Showtime have successfully courted those viewers.

"The Temptations" was such a strong draw that it brought viewers to television who otherwise would not be watching. In Baltimore, for example, the number of homes using televisions from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Nov. 2 was 10 percent higher than normal. In a fall season of weak programs and increasing audience erosion, "The Temptations" was one of the few network offerings that had people talking the morning after and the morning after that.

In fact, NBC has had so many orders for cassettes of the miniseries that it sent out 30-second and 60-second commercials to its affiliates, telling viewers how to order. The commercials will start playing this week on WBAL. If you want to order, the number to call is 800-622-4837. Or you can go on the Web to http: //www.wbaltv. com for directions.

One last note on the miniseries. While singing its praises in my preview, I also pointed out some historical inaccuracies. I have since learned that I am not alone in my concerns.

The family of David Ruffin is suing the producers of "The Temptations" over their depiction of Ruffin and his parents. In seeking a restraining order against the film -- which was denied -- lawyers for the family argued that the film "will confuse viewers in the way that it mixes fact and fiction."

They cited the scene in which Ruffin says his mother was a prostitute who gave him to a pimp to whom she owed money.

But, according to Ruffin's daughters -- Nedra, 36, and Cheryl, 37 -- their grandmother was actually a schoolteacher who taught for 40 years in Meridian, Miss. Earline Ruffin, 99, lives in a nursing home in that city.

"If they're fictionalizing the Temptations' story, why didn't they portray Otis Williams' mother as a woman of the streets?" the Detroit News quoted Gregory Reed, attorney for the Ruffin family, as asking after the September hearing.

The answer: Williams was one of the executive producers of "The Temptations."

In docudrama, it is the interests of the executive producers, not history, that tend to best be served.

Mercy killing -- for viewers

UPN put "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" out of its misery, canceling the controversial and low-rated sitcom about a black butler to Abraham Lincoln, according to the trade paper Variety.

The series, which was picketed in Baltimore, aired a total of four episodes in October, finishing 133rd out of 135 prime-time series, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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