Ratings up 50% from last season

The presidential campaign has been very, very good to “Saturday Night Live.”

“SNL” has experienced a hefty bump in the Nielsen polls this election season, boasting a 50% gain over last season’s first two episodes.

And it’s not the only beneficiary of this year’s bitterly waged presidential campaign. Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” is coming off its most-watched week in history, averaging 1.9 million viewers last week — up 28% from last year.

Of course, last year, the world hadn’t yet heard of Sarah Palin, and both Barack Obama and John McCain were considered longshots for their respective party nominations.

A year later, the U.S. is in the midst of a presidential campaign that many have described as unusual and unexpected — in other words, perfect fodder for “SNL” and “The Daily Show,” not to mention Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” and HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.”

“The Daily Show’s” take on this election cycle no doubt contributed to the show’s recent record-breaking sixth Emmy award for variety, music or comedy series. Ditto “The Colbert Report’s” win in the category of writing for a variety/music/comedy series.

Americans may be suffering from election fatigue, but the producers behind TV’s top satire skeins have been mining comedy gold and probably hope the campaign never ends.

“I sure hope not,” quipped NBC latenight topper Rick Ludwin. “It seems like it’s been going on for two years, and I think it should go on for another two years.”

Given the hefty interest in this year’s McCain-Obama showdown, Peacock made a strategic decision to launch “SNL” earlier than usual. The show usually bows during premiere week — or sometimes even afterward. But this year, it was back on Sept. 14.

That move continues to pay off. Last week’s second episode, hosted by James Franco, averaged a 3.0 rating/12 share, up 25% vs. the second episode a year ago.

What’s more, “SNL” has slated four episodes in a row — a feat it pulled off last spring, post-writers strike, for the first time since the late 1970s. And it will also produce three special primetime “Saturday Night Live Weekend Update Thursday” editions, which will run behind “The Office” starting Oct. 9.

“The early start was based, of course, on the fact that ‘SNL’ came back so strongly after the writers strike,” Ludwin said. “We really felt that momentum build. And then during the summer, so many things shaped the political news, but we weren’t on the air. NBC wanted to get an early start to the season, and we had incredible circulation coming out of the Summer Olympics. Lorne Michaels agreed and was eager to get back on the air — as were the cast and writers on ‘SNL.’”

It didn’t take long for the show to get back into the campaign conversation: Series alum Tina Fey earned raves for her spot-on portrayal of Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin. Some have even suggested the sketch impacted McCain’s poll numbers — shades of last spring’s assertion that the media got tougher on Obama after an “SNL” sketch called out how differently they treated rival Hillary Clinton.

“We’re obviously thrilled that the show is talked about as being more relevant than in the past,” Ludwin said. “And there is a sense of responsibility to be fair. Our job is to be funny and to make fun of politics.”

Ludwin argues that “SNL” has been consistently on target over the last several presidential campaigns, pointing to Darrell Hammond’s circa 2000 Al Gore impression. As for the show’s increased relevancy during this election cycle, the exec also credits “SNL’s” increased Web presence. The availability of the premiere’s Tina Fey-as-Sarah Palin sketch online likely contributed to the show’s solid week-two numbers, he said.

As for this week’s episode, much of what appears on Saturday night will depend on how the presidential debate goes down tonight — or if there’s a debate at all.

“It would be good for the show if, in fact, just one of the candidates shows up,” Ludwin said. “It might not be such a good sign for the country, but in terms of doing a satirical show, it’s a gift.”

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