The Winter Olympic Games didn't put a crimp on
cable's momentum in primetime, but broadcast's ratings once again slid a bit.
For the month of February, basic cable's primetime
ratings soared 13 percent, to a 21.5 from a 19.1 a year ago, according to Nielsen Media
Research data supplied last week by Turner Entertainment Research.
In contrast, the Big Four broadcast networks were down 1
percent in primetime in February, to a 38.3 from a 38.6 rating.
Despite the Nagano Games on CBS, cable's primetime
growth in February was strong, and it actually outpaced its gains for the season to date,
which have been running at 11 percent, according to Robert Sieber, vice president of
audience development at Turner Networks. The top-10-rated cable networks alone gained
roughly 1.5 million viewers in primetime, Sieber said.
"It's a good story for cable," added Tim
Brooks, senior vice president of research for USA Networks. "Cable as a whole is up.
We are getting the riches, and the riches are fairly widespread."
USA Network had a phenomenal February, ranking No. 1 in
primetime with a 2.4 rating, up 26 percent from a year ago. USA's "Sunday Night
Heat" block continued to post ratings increases, gaining 33 percent over last year.
And the network's airing of the Westminster Dog Show garnered a howling 4.0 rating,
Turner Network Television was second in primetime, with a
2.0 rating, a 5 percent increase. Its sister service, TBS Superstation, tied with
Nickelodeon at No. 3, both getting a 1.9 rating. TBS was up 12 percent, while Nick saw a 6
Lifetime Television came in with a 1.7 primetime rating, up
21 percent from 1.4 a year ago. The network's original movies and several strong
installments of its Intimate Portraits series helped to drive ratings, according to
Lifetime president Doug McCormick.
"We are glad that the numbers are coming from the
originals," he said.
Because of the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal
and the Iraqi conflict, the all-news channels did well. In primetime, Cable News Network
was up 30 percent, to a 1.3 rating. For total day, CNN was up 40 percent, to a 0.7 from a
0.5 -- the network's highest monthly rating since October 1995, when the O.J. Simpson
murder trial ended.
MSNBC did a 0.5 rating in primetime, while Fox News Channel
scored a 0.4. Nostalgia Good TV reported a 0.5 rating in primetime.
The final ratings for the February sweeps period -- which
is defined differently than the month of February by Nielsen -- will be available this
week. Nielsen defines the month as Jan. 26 to Feb. 22 -- the period covered by the ratings
cited here -- while the sweeps period spans Feb. 5 to March 4.
ESPN saw a 33 percent primetime ratings decline in
February, to a 0.8. The network didn't attribute its viewership drop directly to the
Olympics, since its audience skews young and male, while Olympic viewers tend to be more
female and older, said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN's vice president of research and sales
But ESPN took two special hits this February, with one
related to the Winter Games, he said. For one, ESPN lost its National Hockey League
coverage because the NHL players were in Japan for the Olympics. Last year, ESPN televised
four NHL games that averaged a 1.0 rating, Bulgrin said.
In addition, ratings for college basketball, which made up
60 percent of ESPN's primetime schedule last month, were down, according to Bulgrin.
In February, Comedy Central, buoyed by raunchy ratings
wonder South Park, and The History Channel were both up 40 percent in primetime.
Both Sieber and Brooks noted that of the top 10 cable
networks in primetime this February, only one was down -- Cartoon Network.
"That should help to deflect the critics who say that
the larger networks aren't contributing to cable's ratings gains," Sieber
Brooks agreed: "This belies the cannibalization
arguments [that new networks are taking away viewers from the major cable channels]."
Although the Olympic Games on CBS didn't hit their
expected ratings projections, they still boosted the broadcaster's primetime ratings
to the lead in the February sweeps.
Because of the Olympics, the pace of the Big Four's
total ratings decline slowed down in February compared with the season to date, during
which it has dropped 4 percent.