‘Bush’ ratings slowly withering on Comedy

More than half of opening night auds gone

NEW YORK — The idea of President Bush as a bumbling husband straight out of a 1960s sitcom may be too offbeat even for the self-styled hip viewers of Comedy Central.

The series is called “That’s My Bush,” and after harvesting a record 3.0 rating in cable homes on the night of its April 4 premiere, the comedy has dropped off in ratings during each of the following three weeks.

The Nielsen hemorrhage has cost the series more than half of its opening-night audience, both among total households and men 18 to 49. On May 2, the series engineered a slight ratings uptick in households and adults 18 to 49.

Even Bill Hilary, exec VP of Comedy Central, and one of the show’s staunchest defenders, says, “I’m shocked that the show hasn’t stirred up more outrage.”

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators and exec producers of both “That’s My Bush” and Comedy Central’s highest-rated series “South Park,” are professional gadflies, poking giddy fun in “Bush” at such dead-serious issues as abortion, capital punishment and gun control.

Ironically, “Bush” generated the most headlines this year not for the content of any of the episodes, but for the decision by Comedy Central to respect the privacy of Bush’s twin daughters by not including them as characters in the series.

“Viewers might have deserted the show because it wasn’t as edgy or as politically driven as advertised,” says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television, an expert on program strategies.

” ‘That’s My Bush’ got a big sampling, all right, but it clearly didn’t meet the expectations of most of the sample. I’m afraid it’ll be real tough to get people to take another look at the show.”

Despite the May 2 household growth of “Bush” from a 1.5 to a 1.6 rating, the May sweeps are loaded with land mines for the show: “Bush” will be going up against original episodes of “Law & Order” on NBC and “Once & Again” on ABC, and firstrun movies and miniseries on CBS.

Comedy Central really didn’t plan it that way, says Hilary, who is less than thrilled with burning off firstrun “Bush” episodes in the May sweeps.

“You can put the blame on the Florida vote count,” he says, which delayed the naming of the president for almost two months and prevented Parker and Stone from going to work on the scripts.

If Gore had won the presidency, “That’s My Gore” would be the title of the show and only actors resembling Al Gore would’ve got auditions for the lead character.

Hilary’s hope is that, even against stiff sweeps competition, “Bush” will level off at about a 1.5 household rating in cable homes, and a 1.0 rating among adults 18 to 49, the demographic Comedy Central focuses on. However, a 1.5 rating might be asking a lot because the network’s average primetime rating logs in at a 0.7.

But if the rating for “Bush” falls much below a 1.5, sources say the network will be hard-pressed to bring the series back because each episode costs in the high six figures to produce. That’s more money than any other original series commissioned by the network.

Hilary says Comedy Central’s decision to renew “Bush” beyond the first eight half-hours won’t come until the network sees 1) how it fares in the May sweeps, and 2) how the reruns hold up in June and July.

Parker and Stone are wrapping up the final “Bush” episode, and then they’ll go back to work on new episodes of “South Park” for airing in the summer when reruns dominate the broadcast-network schedules.

Tom Shales, the lead TV critic of the Washington Post, speculates that one of the reasons “Bush” hasn’t found a wide audience is that “people don’t seem to be very interested in the real President Bush. He’s fairly quiet, and hasn’t provoked people the way his predecessor did. It’s as though the country is taking a rest from the tumult of the Clinton administration.”

“But Parker and Stone are not doing a satire of President Bush — that would be boringly predictable,” Hilary says. “We’re taking a real risk with this show. It’s a parody of a sitcom about situations that occur in everyday life, where the head of the family is a lovable character,” who just happens to be president of the United States.

Judging by Nielsen numbers that are less than stellar, cable subscribers may not be ready to risk a half-hour of their time each week to embrace a comedy whose epitaph may end up reading, “Too clever by half.”