News

Cable Nets Enjoy a Hot Summer

9/02/2001 8:00 PM Eastern

Cable networks triumphed in the primetime ratings this summer, beating back broadcast's onslaught of reality fare such as Fear Factor, Spy TV
and Big Brother II.

Basic-cable ratings climbed 9 percent to a 28.8 average from May 28 through Aug. 26, compared with a 26.5 average in primetime a year ago, according to Turner Entertainment Research from Nielsen Media Research data.

By contrast, no matter how you sliced the broadcast networks' data, the bottom line showed double-digit declines.

The Big Four — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — suffered a 12-percent drop in their primetime ratings, which dipped to a 19.9 from the 22.7 average recorded from May 29 through Aug. 27, 2000, according to Nielsen.

When UPN, The WB and Pax TV are factored in, broadcast declined a hair less, by 11 percent, to a 22.8 from a 25.7 primetime rating.

"Cable has returned to its growth rate of the late 90s," Lifetime Television senior vice president of research Tim Brooks declared. "But broadcast has gone into something approximating a free fall again, despite Fear Factor
and Spy TV. You can't float a seven-day-a-week schedule on one or two shows."

Among the individual cable networks, niche players continued to rule during the summer. Lifetime Television was No. 1 in primetime, up a whopping 24 percent from a year ago to a 2.1 rating, according to Nielsen. USA Network and Cartoon Network, which both sustained ratings declines, tied for second place, with a 1.8.

Like last summer, cable this year faced increased competition from broadcasters from June through August. The Big Four, which once mainly aired reruns during the warm-weather months, took a page from cable and introduced some shows during that period.

Last summer — fueled in part by white-hot hits such as CBS's Survivor
and ABC's Who Wants To Be a MiIlionaire
— the Big Four saw their primetime ratings increase by 2 percent. Cable's primetime ratings last summer were also up by 5 percent — a lower growth rate that owed to the impact of broadcast's strength, according to Turner vice president of audience development Bob Sieber.

"The broadcasters' success last year diminished what cable could do," he said.

Brooks agreed that broadcast's "resurgence" hurt cable last year. But it was a different story this year, even though broadcasters once again trotted out a parade of first-run reality shows, such as Fear Factor
and Spy TV.

HUT LEVELS DECLINE

This go-around, reality programming failed to buoy broadcast's overall primetime ratings. Viewers turned to broadcast for Fear Factor,
but didn't stick around for the umpteenth repeat of Frasier.

"So this year, cable's returned with a gusto," Brooks said.

Broadcast viewership fell significantly, dragging down total TV usage. Household delivery for the Big Four dropped 11 percent, or by 2.6 million homes, to 20.4 million. Cable, by contrast, gained 2.8 million homes this summer, a 10-percent increase that pushed its delivery to 29.5 million households.

But cable's gains in delivery were not enough to offset broadcast's losses. So HUT [homes using television] levels in primetime decreased slightly this summer, falling 1 percent. On average, 54.5 percent of TV homes were watching TV, compared with 54.9 percent last summer, Sieber said, citing Nielsen data.

"With the major broadcast networks dropping so much, it's not a surprise that total TV viewing declined," he said.

This summer, Lifetime continued its march. Its primetime ratings increased each month, jumping from a 1.9 in June to a 2.2 in August.

"It's caught even people here by surprise," Brooks said.

The network's Sunday-night shows —Any Day Now, Strong Medicine
and The Division —
ranked as the top three original dramas on basic cable in August.

"Those Sunday-night dramas are really our marquee," Brooks said. "But we're strong across the board. There's not a weak period across the schedule."

TNN: The National Network, reaping the rewards of its relaunch as a general entertainment network and its addition of the World Wrestling Federation, had a blockbuster summer. Its primetime ratings were up 67 percent, to a 1.0 from a 0.6.

GENERALLY NOT GREAT

But this summer wasn't very good for most of cable's other general-entertainment networks, with respect to household viewership.

"Almost everybody in the top 10 is flat or down," Brooks said. "The only two that are up are ourselves [Lifetime] and TNN."

For example, second-place USA was down 18 percent in primetime. TBS Superstation, tied for third place with Nickelodeon with a 1.7 rating, was down 15 percent. Nick was flat. Turner Network Television was fifth, posting a 1.6 rating, down 6 percent.

Despite the drop in households, both USA and the Turner networks crowed about the improvements in their demographics. TNT, for example, boasted that it was No. 1 in the delivery of adults 25-to-54 in primetime for the summer.

TNT's two-part miniseries The Mists of Avalon
was watched by more than 30 million unduplicated viewers during its various runs. It posted a 5.6 rating for its debut July 15. Avalon's first installment was the highest-rated original movie on basic cable this summer.

USA, which is still struggling with the impact of losing the WWF, claimed the crown among adults 18 to 49 in primetime and tied TBS for first place with adults 18 to 34 in primetime, according to USA Cable senior vice president of research Ray Giacopelli.

"Our younger-adult target audiences are staying with us without wrestling," he said.

In total day this summer, Nick was No. 1 with a 1.5 rating, down 6 percent. Lifetime and Cartoon Network tied for second place, with a 1.3. Lifetime was up 18 percent, while Cartoon Network was flat.

In primetime, cable's biggest gainers included Travel Channel and the Hallmark Channel, each up 33 percent to a 0.3; and Black Entertainment Television, Animal Planet and TV Guide Channel, each up 20 percent to a 0.6.

"Cable is almost a 50 share in summer," said Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau vice president of research Jonathan Sims. "Our sense is that this increase we've been seeing for cable is going to render a disaster for broadcasters for the new season. Broadcast's share is way off, and it is going out of the block stumbling terribly."

No Summertime Blues for Cable
2001 primetime rating 2000 percent change
Periods covered: May 31 through Sept. 5, 1999; May 29 through
Aug. 27, 2000; and May 28 through Aug. 26, 2001.
Source: Turner Entertainment Research from Nielsen Media Research data.
Basic cable 28.8 26.5 +9
Big Four 19.9 22.7 -12
2000 primetime rating 1999 percent change
Basic cable 26.6 25.3 +5
Big Four 22.6 22.2 +2

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