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That doesn't change the fact that SNL's ratings have dropped. The September 30 premiere with Dane Cook and the Killers pulled in 6.7 million viewers and a 3.2 rating; five years ago, the show was getting a 3.7 ratingfor the full-season average, which includes lower-rated reruns. As a raw statistic, 6.7 million viewers represents a lotJon Stewart gets 1.4 million, and the nightly-news numbers are not that far off (8.65 million for NBC, 7.56 million for CBS, both at 6:30 p.m.).
But there have been other measures of the slidefor example, in the 1217 category. They may not be buying cars and big-ticket items, but this demo represents an incubator for lifelong fans of the show. A common denominator between older viewers and even those who no longer watch is an affinity for the show born in early adolescence, when kids are old enough to stay up and watch SNL but young enough not to have any other alternative on a Saturday night. (Hader, Samberg, Forte, and Sudeikis all back this up; Hader even went late to his prom so he could catch a super-special episode with Monty Python, and recalls being sent to the principal's office for refusing to stop talking like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer in biology: "What is this photosynthesis? Your world frightens me!") Over the past five years, the numbers for this demographic have dropped 1.3 points, from 2.4 in 200102 to 1.1 last season.
Still, NBC vice president Tom Bierbaum, who oversees ratings, cautions against interpreting the data too strictly. "[SNL] has kind of kept pace with the general trends in television," he says. "Unfortunately, it's kind of a downward trend." Bierbaum is quick to note that SNL has more than held steady against the Saturday lineup, in prime time and running opposite the show, on all networks, and also notes that there are "now about a hundred" channels from which to choose, not to mention "the explosion of Internet options" for viewers. "Very few shows would be able to claim growth over a five-year period," he says.
Michaels acknowledges this as well. "I think that network television is also in the process of reinventing itselfright now it's the Web, 10 years ago it was cable that was going to destroy it," he says. "And somehow, they all find Grey's Anatomy or they all find the Super Bowlthere's an audience there, but there's more competition for it."
But Grey's Anatomy and the Super Bowl aren't making Bush jokes. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are. "If we were working on something and someone said they just did it on The Daily Show we'd not go near it, obviously," says Michaels. "But they're dailyand we have more time on one levelit's magazine versus newspaper." Veteran SNL writer-performer Al Franken agrees. "SNL has writers, sets, cameramen, lighting, makeup, wigsand really good actors," he says. "There's definitely a place to do the kinds of things that you can't do anywhere else. It's up to the writers to adjust to the realities of the other things, and do the kinds of things that only SNL can do." Seth Meyers thinks they're already doing that: "Those shows are incredibly cohesive, but it doesn't really change what we do. They're going to talk about politics and we're going to do scenes about politics. And to me, they don't bump that much."
Where they do have a noticeable edge, however, is on the Web. Although their audience may have a fraction of the numbers, when it's time to pass around YouTube clips the kids from Comedy Central are way out front. "GE/NBC's gotta be willing to put up with a little more copyright violation to get a better Web presence," says Alex Pareene, editor of the popular political website Wonkette. "I get sent at least one Daily Show and Colbert clip every day that some random guy uploaded to YouTube, but I never hear about it if SNL had something I could use in a post."
It's Friday, October 20 at 6 p.m., the night before the John C. Reilly episode. On the stage of Studio 8H , the cast is rehearsing a six-person sketch about a support group for attention-seeking celebrities, with Amy Poehler as Madonna, Rudolph as Paris Hilton, Hammond as Rumsfeld, Hader as a wild-eyed John Mark Karr, and Samberg as the suddenly famous stingray. By airtime the sketch will be gone, replaced with a Fox News parody featuring Hammond as Brit Hume grilling Forte's George Bush over a long list of Republican blunders, which turns out to be a zing at Fox News itself (as Hammond's Hume cheerfully supports him anyway). Michaels later said the piece, which dragged a bit, "misfired" but pointed to it as a result of high-concept writing, in this case by longtime SNL writer Jim Downey, which used a longer setup to deepen the payoff of the punch.
About five other sketches will die at dress rehearsal, maybe to get resurrected in a later show, maybe never to be heard from again. One that barely squeaked by was a sketch called "BearShark," a goofy piece that combined sight gags, a musical number, and SNL's newly signature tactic of going meta at the end. In dress, the piece was epic: Reilly welcomed his scientists by each of their funny names ("Dr. Franklin Mint!") and toasted the "BearShark Project," their secret mission to combine bear and shark into one cuddly species. Sudeikis's arrival to break the news of the project's demise triggers disbelief in the group (Rudolph: "I trust the BearSharks like my own family!"), Rudolph and Reilly break into song, and Sudeikis returns to address the camera, wondering if the BearShark is really a metaphor for the war in Iraq or the debate over cloning.