While many people tune into The Weather Channel or local-news sources in the summer to find out whether the mercury is expected to reach 90 degrees, cable executives have another number in mind to gauge industry heat.
Programmers and researchers alike are turning to Nielsen Media Research data in hopes of seeing the number 60 — as in a 60 primetime household share. Through the first two weeks after close of the 2004-05 TV season, cable officials have to be happy with their Nielsen readings.
During the first small-screen salvo of TV's summer season, from May 30 to June 5, ad-supported cable registered a 60.3 primetime share — the industry's best-ever single week, according to a Turner Research analysis of Nielsen data. Meanwhile, the seven broadcast networks saw their weighted share slip to a 34.3.
Basic cable didn't do too badly in the season's second week (spanning June 6 to 12) either, notching a 59.6 share, up 5.9% from the same week the year before. That's versus a 34.6 for broadcast, which was up 2.4% for the week.
Rounding the numbers up just a tick for summer's first two weeks, cable is at the 60 share level, versus 34.5 for broadcast.
The question now becomes: Can cable maintain that new benchmark throughout June, July and August?
Researchers, citing myriad factors — from cable's breadth and depth of original series, broadcast's relative programming somnabulence, improved seasonal viewing levels and the lack of a certain quadrennial athletic event — believe the industry could even exceed that level.
“Cable got off to a great start in the first week after the post-regular TV season. It looks as if it's going to be a great summer for cable,” said MTV Networks executive vice president of research and planning Betsy Frank. “Sure, we can attain the 60 mark.”
Added Steve Leblang, senior vice president of strategic planning and research for FX Networks and emerging networks, “A 60 share is sustainable, even beatable.”
LAST SUMMER WAS 57
Making 60 sing all summer long would represent a sizable jump for cable. Last summer, the medium's primetime household share grew 4% from 2003 to an all-time seasonal high of 57. Conversely, broadcast's share declined 2% to a low of 36.3%, according to a Turner analysis.
Thus, in order to push to 60, basic cable would have to raise its share 5.3%.
Given an array of movies, miniseries, new dramas, comedies and reality skeins into August — not to mention returning shows — Leblang believes that's a very doable number.
“We and our competitors are launching multiple high-profile shows. The finale of The Shield, to new series Over There and new seasons of Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, and Lifetime's Strong Medicine and TNT's [limited series] Into The West, these are shows people want to see,” he said. “When you look at TV Guide and other publications like that, basic-cable shows are listed in the same way as other TV options. In our estimation, basic cable has reached program consideration parity in the minds of most viewers.”
NBC Universal president of research Alan Wurtzel also foresees a big number for cable in summer 2005. In an e-mail response, he pointed to the strong beginnings for the new season of The 4400 (it bowed as a limited series last summer) and season four of The Dead Zone, and wrote: “We believe that the USA shows can maintain those performances and that new shows and seasons on Sci Fi will help support cable in reaching a 60 share.”
USA will bow the fourth season of quirky detective series Monk on July 8, A week later, Stargate SG-1 (ninth season) Stargate Atlantis (second) and Battlestar Galactica (second) will return with fresh episodes on Sci Fi. On July 27, Master Blasters will join the second seasons of Tripping the Rift and Ghost Hunters on the service's all-original Wednesday lineup.
BROOKS IS ENCOURAGED
Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television's executive vice president of research, who stopped short of making an early prediction, nonetheless was encouraged by cable's summer beginning, which also includes a record original series 5.9 household ratings performance by TNT's The Closer on June 13 (see page 22).
“The strong start bodes well. Generally, cable doesn't begin to open the gap up until the middle of June,” he said. “And cable does get stronger as the season progresses.”
Although Fox is continuing to pursue its year-round scheduling strategy, the other broadcasters are again “populating their slates with low-budget shows and the latest version of reality shows,” said Brooks, whose network hopes to score big with six-hour miniseries Beach Girls, beginning July 31.
“The Scholar [on ABC] and Fire Me [CBS] are just other takes and not a new direction,” he said. “And then the networks surround them mainly with reruns.”
BROADCAST HITS, TOO
But Leblang said broadcasters deserve some credit: “I don't know why, but [ABC's] Dancing With The Stars is an unqualified success, and [Fox's] Hell's Kitchen is doing well. People are coming to these shows and taking audience from everybody else.”
But the fact that viewers have grown accustomed to finding a bevy of original fare on cable in the summer — and only a handful of new broadcast shows — is not the only habit driving better returns for cable. More and more people are watching the tube during the summer.
“TV is part of our lives. It's in our vacation homes and goes out to the patio with us,” said Brooks, noting that seasonal viewing levels continue to rise. “The difference used to 30%. Now, it's about 10%.”
Viacom Inc.'s youthful-skewing networks like MTV: Music Television, with the upcoming Trailer Fabulous, a Pimp Your Ride-like parody of trailer homes hosted by rapper Brooks Buford; the latest installment of reality stalwart The Real World, this time from Austin, Texas; and Comedy Central certainly benefit from having more young people home from school.
“Having some more leisure time to kick back and watch TV certainly helps us with the 18 to 24s, 18 to 34s,” she said, adding that Nickelodeon and MTV have access to more kid and teen viewers as well.
Cable's scheduling is also key to attracting summer viewers. “Multiple showings work because if someone's not around the first time, they can catch an encore and maybe become a regular [primetime] viewer. That's always been a strength for cable,” Frank said.
There's another factor in cable's favor this year: An absence of programming from Athens. Last year, NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympic Games helped the broadcast industry improve its overall ratings 1%. Without the Olympics, broadcast would have been down 9%.
“Without the Olympics, [a 60 share] is pretty much a done deal,” Frank said.