Popular stars aren't really as popular as show-biz insiders think they are

Published: Thursday, Oct. 18 2012 2:17 p.m. MDT

This film image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Aaron Paul as Charlie Hannah, left, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Hannah in a scene from "Smashed." (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Classics, Oana Marian)

Oana Marian, ASSOCIATED PRESS

The other day on the radio a commentator was discussing the upcoming movie “Smashed” and said that one of the stars is Aaron Paul, adding that everyone knows him from the television series “Breaking Bad.”

“Breaking Bad” is a cable show that I’m aware of primarily because I read entertainment magazines and websites, but it’s not a show that I watch. So it struck me as curious that “everyone knows” this actor. Well, everyone who watches “Breaking Bad.”

And probably not all of them. Even viewers who watch a show every week don’t automatically learn the stars’ names, much less the name of a co-star. Bryan Cranston gets top billing and he’s not exactly a household name, even to those who remember him as the dad on “Malcolm in the Middle” for seven seasons.

“Breaking Bad” is an AMC program that averages maybe 1.5 million viewers any given week, though it peaked at 2.9 million for the Season 5 debut last month. In terms of modern TV viewing habits, that’s pretty good. Especially for cable. But it doesn’t scratch the surface of what TV numbers used to be.

Back when there were only three networks — from the 1950s through the 1970s — an episode of the most popular programs, say “I Love Lucy” or “Gunsmoke” or “M*A*S*H” or “Dallas,” might attract 20 million or more viewers. The “I Love Lucy” episode chronicling the birth of “Little Ricky” pulled in an estimated 44 million viewers.

All of which speaks to the breakdown of water-cooler television. That is, the kind of shows that were shared conversationally around the figurative “water cooler” at work the next day because everyone watched them.

An especially interesting episode of a top show would often have people talking about it. And Johnny Carson’s nightly “Tonight Show” monologues provided frequent topics of the next morning’s break-room chatter.

And if someone in the group missed a particular show and was feeling left out, there was no going back to the DVR or doing a search on iTunes or borrowing a friend’s recording. It aired and it was gone — at least until the summer rerun season or years later when it was resurrected for syndication.

These days, TV watching is so fragmented with so many choices on so many channels (as well as other viewing venues) that it’s a little tougher to find shows that you and your circle of friends all regularly watch on the first night. Even if you like a certain program, chances are you won’t watch it until days later. Since the late 1990s, TV viewing has dropped off by a third.

There are exceptions, of course. NFL games, “American Idol” finales and the Olympic Games might cross into big numbers. The recent first debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney garnered some 70 million viewers, although it must be remembered that this event was broadcast on quite a few networks simultaneously, not just one.

It might be interesting to do a little survey of your own to determine how many people really watch the shows that critics and even the Emmys hail as the programs everyone watches or that have supposedly iconic elements.

Was “Sex and the City” really so well-watched that everyone understands references to the HBO show?

To read Entertainment Weekly or In Touch or Us Weekly — or even the occasional TV stories in Time or Newsweek — you’d think that everyone on the planet watches “The Walking Dead,” “Dexter” and “Mad Men.”

And if you scanned the 2012 Emmy nominations last month, you might have found yourself wondering about such shows as “Girls” or “Veep” or “Boardwalk Empire.” Like “Breaking Bad,” they are all cable series with viewer numbers that are just not that impressive.

By show of hands, how many of you know these stars: Andrew Lincoln, Michael C. Hall, Jon Hamm, Lena Dunham? They are the respective stars of “The Walking Dead,” “Dexter,” “Mad Men” and “Girls.” And if you did know any of them, well, you are probably among the minority watching those shows.

But try asking your neighbors, your co-workers, your relatives, your Facebook “friends” if they know who they are without doing a Google search. Some may — but the majority?

Remember Aaron Paul? The guy at the top of this column? The one who started these musings?

Last month the “Breaking Bad” co-star won his second Emmy for best supporting actor (drama). With a reported 13 million viewers tuning into the Emmy awards program — many more than watch his show — that will most certainly boost Paul’s career.

But his public profile? Not so much.

E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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