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Can Anyone Beat this Cable Network?

4/06/2010 12:45 PM Eastern

USA Network has become a royal pain for cable networks looking to win a quarterly ratings crown.

The network has been virtually unbeatable among adsupported
cable entertainment networks, notching its 15th consecutive
quarterly win during the first three months of 2010,
according to a Disney-ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen
Media Research analysis.

USA’s triple programming threat of quality original scripted
series such as Royal Pains, Psych, White Collar and In Plain Sight; World
Wrestling Entertainment’s audience-grabbing franchise Monday Night
Raw
; and such acquired off -network fare as NCIS and Law & Order:
Special Victims Unit
have made the NBC Universal-owned channel a
virtual lock for the top ratings slot in prime time every quarter.

USA, whose maxim is “Characters Welcome,” averaged 3.1 million
total viewers from Dec. 29, 2009 to March 26, 2010, drawing nearly
1 million more viewers than its closest competitor, Disney Channel.
The network also swept all key advertiser-coveted demos, including
adults 18 to 49, 25 to 54 and 18 to 34.

“For us, the biggest challenge is trying to top ourselves every quarter
every year,” said Bonnie Hammer, president of NBC Universal Cable
Entertainment and Universal Cable Productions. “It’s exciting and
its great, but it’s also scary, because we’re constantly asking ourselves,
‘How do we keep doing it?’ ”

Only a few have knocked USA
from its perch, and only briefly:
ad-free network Disney Channel,
with a strong third-quarter
2007 supported by the 18 million-
viewer premiere for original
movie High School Musical
2
— and sports network ESPN,
with four consecutive years of
fourth-quarter wins, aided by several
audience record-setting Monday
Night Football
telecasts.

One of USA’s key strategies is
a willingness to constantly rearrange
its programming schedule
to maximize audience reach and
viewers.

In the first quarter of 2010, the
network abandoned the traditional
Friday- and Sunday-night
beachhead from which it launched
original series. Instead, it opted for
head-to-head battle with the broadcasters on Tuesday, Wednesday and
Thursday nights when TV viewing levels — and competition — are at
their peak.

The network debuted three of its biggest shows — White Collar, Psych
and Burn Notice — at 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays,
respectively. The move was an effort to draw in a younger, more affluent
viewer, according to Hammer.

“In a sense, we had to grow up and get off of the Friday-night habit,
where it was more of a protected zone, so we took a page out of the
broadcast playbook and put strong dramedies on those days,” she said.
“We created a space where we had continuity and pushed people from
Tuesdays to Wednesday and Wednesday to Thursday and brought in
younger, more affluent viewers.”

The result: double-digit increases in the 18-to-34 demographic for
those shows, compared to prior seasons — and another quarterly ratings
win. USA hopes to maintain its momentum with last week’s launch of
new episodes of returning original series Law & Order: Criminal Intent
and In Plain Sight, Hammer said.

USA hopes to lure those same young, affluent viewers
back to the network when White Collar, Psych and
Burn Notice return this summer,
along with last year’s No. 1 new
original series, Royal Pains,
and two newcomers, Covert
Affairs
and Facing Kate.

“We hope to have that
added value of having that
new interested younger
core coming in, as well
as our more consistent,
older audience,” Hammer
said.

As unbeatable as
USA seems, its performance
showed
signs of weakness
in the first quarter
against stiffer broadcast
competition. It
posted a 4% drop in total viewers compared to the same
period in 2009 and an even more
alarming 12% decline among 18-
to-49-year-olds, as well as a 10%
decline among its core 25-to-54
demographic during the quarter,
according to Nielsen.

But USA wasn’t alone in posting
ratings declines — nearly half
of cable’s 20 most-watched networks
during the quarter posted
negative audience gains. In fact,
ad-supported cable networks as
a whole suffered a 1% decline in
household share for the quarter
to an average of 57.4 households
watching cable networks.

The four major broadcast networks
— on the heels of NBC’s
successful Winter Olympics coverage
from Vancouver — posted
a rare gain in household share to
36.2, according to a Turner Research
analysis of Nielsen numbers.

The last time cable share
dropped during the first quarter
was in 2006, during NBC’s coverage
of the Winter Olympics in Torino,
Italy.

“This is like clockwork — every
four years, cable’s share goes
down due to the Olympics,”
said Turner Broadcasting System
chief research officer Jack
Wakshlag.

Cable’s share performance
should return to positive form
during the second quarter 2010,
said Wakshlag, as the broadcastnetwork
TV season winds down
and cable networks begin gearing
up their summer original programming
schedules.

1Q WINNERS AND LOSERS
Fox News Channel led the best
of the rest of cable’s primetime
performers for the quarter, averaging
2.3 million viewers, an increase
of 3% over the prior year.

TNT finished fourth with a flat
2.1 million viewers, while ESPN
finished fifth with 1.8 million
viewers, up 20% from last year.

Rounding out the top 10 are
Nick at Nite (1.8 million viewers,
up 7%); TBS (1.7 million, down
7%); A&E (1.6 million, up 7%); History
(1.4 million, up 14%) and ABC
Family (1.4 million, up 5%)

Much like USA, kids-targeted
network Nickelodeon extended its
quarterly ratings winning streak to
a whopping 60 consecutive quarters,
averaging a network record
2.3 million viewers, easily besting
sister service Nick at Nite’s 1.6 million
average viewers over a 24-hour
basis. Disney Channel chimed in at
third with a 10% audience gain to
1.6 million viewers, while USA Network
(1.4 million viewers, down
5%); and TNT (1.3 million viewers,
up 9%) filled out the top five.

Despite heavy competition
from the broadcast networks via
the Olympics, a number of cable
networks managed to deliver exceptional
ratings performances.

Fox Soccer Channel posted
the largest year-to-year increase
of the quarter with a 71% increase
to 41,000 viewers, followed closely
by a pair of Discovery Communications-
owned diginets,
ID: Investigation Discovery (up
56% to 364,000 viewers) and Military
Channel (a 40% increase to
176,000 viewers.)

Other network posting doubledigit
increases during the quarter
included Fuse (up 29%); TV One,
Style and Mun2 (all up 25%); E!
(24%); Nick Jr. (19%); CMT (18%);
Oxygen, G4 and International
Channel (all up 17%); Lifetime
Movie Network (15%); History and
Science Channel (14%); HGTV
(13%); Food Network (12%); and
Tru TV and The Weather Channel
(10%).

Networks that struggled during
the quarter included CNN, down
a whopping 39%; Hallmark Channel
(down 33%); GAC (29%); Golf
Channel (26%); VH1 (25%); HLN
(24%); Versus (21%); and TV Land
(21%).

Fox Rules News Roost

FOX NEWS CHANNEL SILENCED all debate over which news channel
was the cable industry’s most popular during the first quarter of
2010.

Fox News tallied its best first-quarter performance in its history,
averaging 2.3 million viewers in
primetime during the period of Dec.
28, 2009 to March 28, 2010, according
to a Disney-ABC Television Group
analysis of Nielsen Media Research.

That was up 3% over the 2.2 million
viewers the News Corp.-owned
network averaged during the same
period in 2009.

Fox News also took top honors
among all the key demos including
the category’s key demo of 25-to-54-
year-olds, where it more than doubled
second-place MSNBC’s audience
average (599,000 viewers vs. 272,000).

Fox News programming occupied the top 13 spots in the news
category, led by Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor, according to
network officials.

TV historian and former cable executive Tim Brooks said the
current political discourse in the country tends to favor Fox’s more
debate and talk news format.

“It benefits Fox News more that there’s great political turmoil,
which we certainly have right now in the country,” Brooks said. “Fox
has the sharper personalities and has the populist view and has
seemed to gain momentum.”

While Fox was enjoying its best quarter, CNN suffered through
one of its worst, dropping 39% of its 1.1 million first-quarter
2009 audience to finish at 691,000 viewers for the first three
months of 2010 and falling into third place behind MSNBC. The
NBC Universal-owned service, boosted by viewership from its
February Winter Olympics coverage, averaged 811,000 viewers,
although that was down from 958,000 in 2009.

HLN finished fourth among cable news networks, averaging
498,000 viewers, down 24% from 656,000 viewers in 2009, while
CNBC finished fifth with 341,000 watchers, up 16% from 294,000
viewers last year.

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