Call Her Madam Secretary of TV Ratings

A series about a female secretary of state may not be revolutionary, but it is still attracting many millions of viewers

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The writing seems to be on the wall. Or rather, on the screen. Or, to be more precise, on the screen, but not the screen affixed to the wall of the living room or bedroom.

It says the numbers are tumbling down. The numbers I’m referring to are in the millions, and they indicate the population of TV viewers, dissected and analyzed by viewing days, hours and demographics. In other words, ratings – what make the world of TV go round. More viewers means the networks can charge more for commercial slots, which brings money in and allows for creating more TV fodder to vie for more viewers, which will push the price of ad time higher, and so on.

The ratings for TV viewing have been dropping steadily in recent months (some say years) by 25 percent (some say 50 percent) as more viewers, especially in the important segment of the 18-49 age range, are switching from the TV set to the personal mobile screen, be it a smartphone or tablet.

And yet, with that decline, which spells imminent doom, a TV program that is way down on the list of the 50 most watched programs on American TV – “Game of Thrones,” 45th out of 50 – has an average 9.4 million viewers, which is still quite a lot if you ask me. But nobody does. Ask me, that is. So I asked myself – as sort of a personal challenge – how many out of the 50 most popular programs on American TV I have sampled myself or written about. And the result is – drumroll, please – 22 out of 50, and I’m quite proud of that achievement.

With all those millions tuning in every week – No. 1 on the list, “The Big Bang Theory” has 21.3 million viewers; No.2, “NCIS” boasts 21 million – quantity does not necessarily mean quality (the popular but misleading notion assumes that it is an inverse ratio, i.e. the more popular, the worse it is). The fact that a series is popular does not mean that TV columns talk about it.

For instance, there is “Madam Secretary,” a new (in its second season) political-topical-domestic drama created for CBS by Barbara Hall, broadcast Sundays in the U.S. and Israel (on Yes Stars Drama on Saturday, and then in reruns and Yes VOD). It’s about a fictional female U.S. Secretary of State in the mold of Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve in that post (Albright appears as herself in a cameo role in the first episode of season 2); and of Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

“Madam Secretary” is number 13 on the list, with an average of 14.3 million viewers in the first season, and generally positive reviews, (“solid but unspectacular political drama” is the general tone). Yet columnists do not write about it as much as they do about other series that cover very much the same ground, like “The West Wing” of the recent past, or “Scandal,” “House of Cards” or “The Good Wife.” All of them mix current world politics, internal and interpersonal affairs, and the specific problems of a woman in the male-dominated world of national and international politics.

Firm but fair

The woman in the eye of the storm of “Madam Secretary” is Dr. Elizabeth Adams McCord, nicknamed Bess (played by the fair – in appearance and all else – Téa Leoni), a former CIA analyst and professor of political science. She is brought in on short notice by her former boss, now President Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine), to replace Secretary of State Vincent Marsh (Brian Stokes Mitchell), who was killed in a plane crash. (Involved in plotting dirty, covert international deals, Marsh was presumably hoisted by his own petard). Bess tries to play firm but fair, but has to outmaneuver a male National Security Adviser, her old nemesis from their CIA days, who works both openly and behind her back to push her out of the loop.

In the first three episodes of season 2, Madam Secretary serves briefly as acting president when Air Force One goes mysteriously off the radar screen and communication grid. It turns out that the plane’s computers were hacked, at this point by unknown perpetrators with unclear aims. In that capacity, during her very short tenure as chief of state, she pardons a journalist who is in prison for refusal to divulge her sources. Morgan Freeman, who co-produces the series, makes a cameo appearance in episode 1 as Supreme Court chief justice, who swears Bess in as acting president. In episode 3, Madam Secretary finds herself accused of meddling in internal Soviet politics, following the demise of Russia’s (fictional) president, with the Ukraine debacle very much in the foreground.

“Scandal” and “House of Cards” present the American powers that be as – in general – dirty, corrupt and willing to do everything and anything for personal gain, with wheels within wheels turning all the time in conflicting directions. In contrast, “Madam Secretary” tries to be “closer to reality,” as Bess deals with the no-nonsense White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek), who usually summons her to the White House on a moment’s notice via a curt text message. This usually arrives when she is in the midst of a family dinner with her husband, Henry McCord, a professor of theology who lectures on military ethics at the National War College and consults with the NSA (i.e., is asked to recruit new spies from an assortment of his international students), and her fiercely independent children. McCord is played by Tim Daly, and at least at this point it looks like a very happy marriage; but hey, it’s only the second season.

At this point in season 2, episode 4, international politics and the interpersonal affairs of office politics recede into the background. The McCords’ eldest daughter, Stevie, is having an off-and-on affair with Harrison, the president’s son, a reformed (or possibly not quite) drug addict. Some photos of the young couple are about to be made public, and Madam Secretary will have to work overtime to keep things under control on the home front.

The fact that the secretary of state is a woman is not exactly hot news, so the series sort of plods on, trying to be credible, whatever that means in the fictional world of political TV dramas. Recent ratings have dropped down to 9 million viewers for episode 2. But the world – on screen and in reality – keeps on turning, whether we watch it or not.