For basic cable, the 2001-02 television season marked the culmination of a long march. The medium, whose array of general-entertainment and niche programming services have been whittling away at the broadcast industry's ratings dominance over the past decade, wasn't expected to win the competition for primetime viewership until the current season.
But a confluence of factors — notably the rise of original series programming; the attendant buzz for that fare, starting last spring; and continued gains during the summer months — led to basic cable wearing the primetime Nielsen crown for the first time during the 52-week period ended Sept. 22.
And after rebounding from a down month in October, basic cable made further inroads against one of the last bastions of broadcast: the November sweep period. With an expected surge in December, basic cable is poised to increase its primetime advantage during the current campaign.
"We did what we expected in November, even going up against [ABC's] The Bachelor
and other special programming from the broadcasters," said Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau president and CEO Joe Ostrow. "December will be even better, as basic cable will continue to widen its advantage over the broadcasters during the 2002-03 season."
Basic-cable networks, which tend to dole out fresh episodes of their series sporadically after the February sweep period, attracted plenty of attention with the debut of two shows in March and April. MTV: Music Television's The Osbournes, the comedic reality show that follows former Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne and his family, bowed on March 5 with a 2.8 household rating.
Ozzy and his oddball brood quickly became a pop culture cynosure. During its 10-episode run through May, premiere installments averaged a 4.4 household rating and a 5.3 among MTV's 12-to-34 target audience.
FX's gritty police drama The Shield
bowed one week later, earning a 4.1 household rating, the highest mark ever for a basic-cable original series debut. FX quickly ordered a second season of the drama, starring Michael Chiklis, who later won an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama series.
Summer to remember
The buzz created by the shows carried over into the summer. While Fox's American Idol
and NBC's Dog Eat Dog
certainly resonated with many TV viewers, viewers habituate toward cable in the summer, given the networks' overall warm-weather somnabulism and cable's tradition of trotting out new fare.
Those who clicked to the debut of USA's The Dead Zone
were not disappointed. The latter, starring Tony Shaloub as a quirky detective battling criminals and a host of phobias, later crossed over into the broadcast realm — it became a case study in reverse repurposing when its episodes got a second play on ABC.
According to Turner Broadcasting System Inc. chief research officer Jack Wachslag, the USA dramas — along with Turner Network Television's Witchblade
(which was subsequently cancelled); Lifetime veterans Strong Medicine
and The Division, and that network's rookie, For The People
— all averaged a 2.0 household rating this past summer, a first for basic cable.
When all was said and done, basic cable's primetime ratings advanced 8.3 percent to a 28.8 from May 23 through Aug. 25, from summer 2001's 26.6 average, according to a CAB analysis of Nielsen data. The medium's share improved 9 percent to a 53.3.
On the delivery side, households climbed 12 percent to 30.4 million.
Basic's gains were largely broadcast's losses. According to the CAB analysis, the weighted gross ratings average for the seven networks declined 9.6 to a 21.0 from a 23.3 in summer 2001. With broadcast's share off 7 percent to a 39.8, cable posted a 13.5-point advantage over its competitor last summer.
All told, CAB spokesman Steve Raddock said the group's analysis showed that basic cable recorded 16 weeks of 52 and 53 shares, as the medium played well both before and after the May sweep.
The momentum continued into September. Even as broadcast networks started to unveil their new shows later in the month, cable wrested the primetime diadem away, earning a 28.2 average from Sept. 24, 2001 to Sept. 22, 2002 versus a 27.7 for broadcast.
On a share basis, the count was 47.9 for cable, compared to broadcast's 47.0 share. Cable also held an edge of 500,000 households, in terms of delivery, for an average of 29.7 million.
"The old argument that broadcast is TV's mass-reach medium has been laid to rest by last season's results, and by what we project will be cable's growing dominance of TV viewing in the new 2002-03 season," Ostrow said at the time. "This represents growing value and impact for those advertisers who increase their investments in cable."
In October, cable stumbled, trailing the broadcasters in share, 53.1 to a 44, as the networks rolled out their new-season fare. Comparisons were skewed by the year-earlier period, when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks disrupted viewing patterns.
Still, other series emerged. TLC's home-improvement combination of Trading Spaces
and newcomer While You Were Out
have built a powerful Saturday-night block, propelling the network into basic cable's top 10 in primetime this fall.
Basic regained its footing during the November sweep, securing viewers as the broadcasters lost ground. Its cause was aided by premium television's biggest show, Home Box Office's The Sopranos, according to MTVN executive vice president of research Betsy Frank.
She said the mob series' performance — premiere installments of the fourth season have averaged some 10 million viewers on Sunday nights — blunted the broadcasters on a traditionally strong evening.
Industry observers expect more traction in December. While there are holiday specials slated to air, Frank noted that broadcasters often air fewer new episodes of series during the month. Cable also gets a boost when the kids return home from college, Frank said.
There's also a very strong cable lineup. The second season of The Osbournes, which delivered a 5.2 household rating and a 6.2 among the 12-to-34 set with its Nov. 26 premiere, will be underway.
Sci Fi's Taken
— the Stephen Spielberg-produced maxiseries about alien abduction — got off to a flying start, with a network-record 4.9 household rating for its first two-hour installment on Dec. 2. The 20-hour project extends through mid-month with various replays of its 20 original hours.
And ESPN is expecting a powerful close to what's been a well-rated National Football League season. The total sports network has averaged an 8.48 household rating for its first 13 Sunday Night Football
games through Dec. 1. That's up 24 percent from a 6.12 for 14 games at the same point in the 2001 season, according to the network.
The pro football package's lead-in, NFL Prime Time, has also scored big, tackling a 12 percent gain to a 3.49 rating.
College football has also produced in primetime. ESPN has averaged a 2.21 for 13 games on Thursday nights this season, versus a 1.72 for 10 games last year. On Saturday nights, ESPN has averaged a 2.22 for 16 contests, up marginally from a 2.16 for 13 games in 2001.
In addition to the final month of its NFL coverage, ESPN will televise 20 college bowl games during December and early January.