And The Winners Are — USA and TNT

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For the first time in four years, USA Network can claim that it’s No. 1 in the primetime ratings, finishing in a first-quarter tie with Turner Network Television.

The face-off between USA and TNT was a cliffhanger, as both services ultimately racked up a 2.1 household rating, according to an ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data released last week.

Cable officials said the strong showing by two general-entertainment networks bodes well for the medium this year.

PRIME YEAR LOOMS

In fact, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. is already projecting that for the first time ever, cable will beat broadcast in terms of primetime share for the full season.

“The race between USA and TNT is really good for basic cable,” USA general manager Michele Ganeless said. “It’s good for the industry, because there’s so many more viewers turning to cable, particularly for original programming now as there’s so much reality on the [broadcast] networks.

“They’re coming to cable for scripted programming. They’re coming to cable for theatricals. They’re coming to cable for original movies, because the networks aren’t really doing any anymore.”

For the quarter, ad-supported cable outpaced the seven broadcasters in terms of primetime share, household delivery and ratings, according to a Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau analysis of Nielsen data.

VIEWERS VS. HOMES

Last week, despite the ratings tie, USA was claiming bragging rights as “the most-watched” network on basic cable, as it nudged ahead of TNT in terms of viewers 2 years and older for the first quarter.

USA had 2,426,000 viewers, versus 2,410,000 for TNT.

TNT, in turn, had 1,831,000 households, edging just 3,000 ahead of USA’s 1,828,000.

USA is playing up the size of its viewership growth. Its primetime ratings for the quarter shot up 31% compared with the year-ago period, while TNT was up 5%.

“It’s great that it’s close competition: Competition makes everybody better,” said Steve Koonin, executive vice president and chief operating officer of TNT and TBS Superstation.

TNT, which has been No. 1 for more than a year, had its own first-quarter news to boast about.

TNT was first in delivery of adults 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 in primetime and total day, setting a record for the total-day delivery of 25-to-54-year-olds, according to Turner’s analysis of Nielsen data.

TNT HAS KEY DEMOS

“From a demo standpoint, they [USA] didn’t do as great,” Koonin said. “Winning and being No. 1 is all great for the press clips, but at the end of the day, your business is selling advertising. And the demographics are where we are really, really mounting the challenge against the [broadcast] networks.”

USA’s gains were driven by reruns of Law & Order: SVU; Monk, basic-cable’s top-rated original scripted series; and The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story, basic cable’s top-rated original movie year to date.

“It’s a great feeling after all this time to be the most-watched cable network,” Ganeless said.

“The other thing we’re so excited about is the actual size of the gains since last year. We’re actually the most improved network since last year: 526,000 viewers greater than last year, which is the biggest gain of anyone in cable.”

LOOKING AHEAD

USA said its momentum is strong going into the second quarter, with high hopes for its upcoming miniseries, Spartacus; the third-season launches of Monk and Dead Zone; tributes to Richard Gere and Meryl Streep; and a Willie Nelson Memorial Day concert.

But Koonin said while the first quarter was relatively weak for TNT, the second quarter will be a ratings blockbuster.

“We will have a very, very strong second quarter,” he said. “Our second quarter will feature 40 [National Basketball Association] playoff games in 40 nights, which are some of the highest-rated nights on cable.”

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