Big Year for the Big 10

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Despite increased competition from new-media alternatives, the top 10 cable networks last year either registered primetime ratings gains or at the very least held their own.

“Traditional television” performed strongly last year, with household usage and individual viewing reaching new levels, according to Betsy Frank, executive vice president of research and planning for Viacom Inc.’s cable networks, film and publishing.

“We’re not seeing erosion in television and we’re not seeing erosion in cable television,” Frank said. “Despite the fact people have embraced more and more new media and leisure-time options — and in fact, not only are they using them, but those are the ones getting the buzz — according to Nielsen, Americans are continuing to embrace television, and embrace it in a big way.”

TNT BREAKS RECORDS

Turner Network Television, once again proving that drama draws viewers, was the undisputed ratings champ in 2005, breaking eight cable records. But the other big-10 cable networks also saw primetime ratings gains: some as high as 30%, with even the worse performers staying flat, not suffering decreases.

“For none of the top 10 ad-supported cable networks to be down, year to year, is kind of unusual,” said Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television’s executive vice president of research. “Normally, you’ll have winners and losers. It shows the strength of the medium.”

In 2005, cable widened its lead, in terms of its share of household primetime viewing, over the seven major broadcast networks. Cable last year racked up a 55.4 share, compared with broadcast’s 41.1 share, according to a Turner Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data released last week.

Cable also has an early lead over broadcast in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 demographic in primetime in the first 14 weeks of this season, with cable registering a 43.3 share and broadcast a 40.4.

Depending on what kind of boost the Olympics gives NBC, cable has a good shot at outdelivering broadcast in 18-to-49 adults for the entire season, according to Jack Wakshlag, Turner Broadcasting System Inc.’s chief research officer.

He also noted a 10% increase in average hours of TV viewed a week, according to Nielsen, to 31.8 hours in 2005 from 29 in 2000. And during that five-year period, cable viewing has skyrocketed 41%, to 15.5 hours from 11, according to Wakshlag.

Much of the TV’s viewership increases are going to late-night and daytime, Frank said. “Late night is the new primetime,” she said, citing Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, as well as Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” block, its young-male magnet.

NO ZERO-SUM GAME

Last year, “the concept of multiplatform became a reality” in terms of content, Frank said, referring to broadband, video-on-demand and even the iPod. But the proliferation of new media doesn’t translate to a zero-sum game versus TV, according to Frank, as consumers often multitask and may be using their computer while watching a TV show.

Last year marked the third time in a row that TNT ranked No. 1 in the primetime cable ratings, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen Research data.

TNT, in part powered by original programming such as The Closer and Into the West, ended 2005 in the No. 1 spot with a 2.2 household rating, up 5% from last year, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen data.

Among its 2005 records, TNT delivered more households, viewers 2-plus, and adults 18-to-49 and 25-to-54 in primetime than any other cable network in history.

But last year USA Network, getting a big boost from wrest- ling, inched up close behind TNT. USA was in the No. 2 spot in primetime with a 2.0, a 5% increase from last year, according to Nielsen.

Disney Channel capped a strong year right behind USA, with a 1.9 rating, up 12%. Nick at Nite followed, with a 1.7, seeing a 6% gain.

Next, Lifetime Television, ESPN and Fox News Channel were all tied for fifth place with a 1.6 primetime rating. Lifetime and ESPN were both flat, while Fox News was up 7%.

Lifetime did well with its original movies, as 12 of them averaged more than a 3.0 rating each. The women’s network also had the top eight original movies on ad-supported cable.

Cartoon Network posted a 1.5 primetime rating for the year, the same as in 2004. TBS did a 1.4 rating, flat, while Spike TV garnered a 1.3, up 30% from a year ago.

While TNT has enjoyed its dominance in primetime, that’s being challenged by USA, which got World Wrestling Entertainment’s Monday Night Raw back last year. For example, in the fourth quarter in primetime USA actually beat TNT, coming in second with a 2.3, compared with fourth place TNT’s 1.9. ESPN was No. 1 for the fourth quarter, with a 2.4, and Disney was third with a 2.0.

'CLOSE RACE’ WITH USA

“TNT says they know drama, but USA knows drama, too, and has for many, many years,” Brooks said. “I certainly would not underestimate the ability of Universal to turn out powerhouse dramatic series.

“With the Law & Order franchise gradually subsiding on both of those networks, they both have to look to the next thing to carry them. I think it’s going to be an extremely close race.”

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