'SNL' opener jumps 29% over last season thanks to Baldwin's Trump

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Not since Tina Fey took on Sarah Palin has 'SNL' drawn so many viewers. What does that say about the future of the franchise?

Live from New York…it was Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, who made his first appearance as the Republican Presidential hopeful on the 42nd season premiere of NBC’s "Saturday Night Live" this weekend, hosted by Margot Robbie.

Baldwin, of course, does not enjoy the same striking resemblance to Trump that Tina Fey had to vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin in 2008. But alongside newly minted Emmy-winner Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton in the well-publicized season-opener (not to mention Larry David as Bernie Sanders, Robbie as Ivanka Trump and Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton in a "Family Feud" sketch), Baldwin helped continue SNL’s now familiar pattern of surging in the ratings—and the public consciousness—during Presidential election years.

The show averaged a 5.8 household rating/15 share based on the 56 metered markets monitored by Nielsen, which was up by 29% from last year’s 4.5/11 for the Oct. 3, 2015 season-opening telecast. Comparably, this was its highest-rated season premiere since Sept. 13, 2008—the first time Fey appeared as Palin. Results among adults 18-49, based on 25 markets with local people meters, was a 2.7 rating/14 share, was 35% above the year-ago telecast (2.0).

The fan response to Baldwin’s Trump was overwhelmingly positive, at least on social media.

Though political satire has been a part of the SNL mix dating back to the Ford administration, it wasn’t till Fey appeared as Palin that it became the ratings-driver it is now. Fey’s Palin impersonation made 2008 the show’s most-watched season in 11 years, with 9.17 million viewers per show, on average, according to Nielsen. When the real Palin appeared on the show alongside Fey (and Baldwin, coincidentally) on October 18, 2008, it was the single most-watched episode in 14 years, with over 14 million viewers. In the years since, not a single show or season of "SNL" has once again matched those numbers. Capitalizing on a new election season was a no-brainer for the long-running series.

So boss Lorne Michaels wasn’t taking any chances when it was announced that his go-to Trump impersonator, Taran Killam, was leaving the show after the 2015-2016 season. He signed Baldwin to appear as the controversial real-estate magnate throughout this coming year, and hyped the hell out of the actor’s first appearance this weekend. Judging by Saturday’s ratings, Michaels may have caught lightning in a bottle again. Whew.

Of course, "SNL" viewership didn’t exactly return to the basement the moment the ballots were counted in 2008. In fact, it dropped by only 760,000 the following season (9.17 to 8.41 million), and finished 2015-16 with a comparable 8.14 million viewers. The season before Sarah Palin, in 2007-08, drew an average of just 6.87 million.

Still, there’s no denying the importance of these political sketches to a show that hasn’t otherwise produced a culturally relevant moment since 2005’s Lazy Sunday. While it’s great that Michaels probably has another winning season ahead of him—and with Trump pushing the envelope of decorum on the campaign trail every day, why wouldn’t he?—count me among those who hopes he uses the momentum to help boost the show’s other offerings.

"Political satire is certainly the bread and butter of "SNL," noted Robert Russo, President of RNR Media Consulting. "But there are also the meat and potatoes, which has not been all that appetizing in recent years. It should not just be about the political satire, which is basically what it is at present. And now is the opportunity to fine tune it."

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