Despite broadcast's blitz during the February sweeps,
basic cable marched on with double-digit primetime-ratings gains in the first quarter,
scoring a 10 percent increase.
Although the "Big Four" benefited from some
special boosts -- such as Monica Lewinsky's overhyped chat with Barbara Walters and
the Oscars telecast -- basic cable still saw its ratings jump to a 24.6 from a 22.3,
according to Nielsen Media Research data supplied by Turner Entertainment Research.
"This is the eighth consecutive quarter of
double-digit growth in viewing for cable," said Robert Sieber, Turner's vice
president of audience development.
In contrast, the Big Four were down 6 percent in primetime
in the first quarter, to a 30.8. The six broadcast networks -- a group that includes The
WB Television Network and United Paramount Network, as well as ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox --
were down 4 percent, to a 33.4 rating.
Basic cable's primetime viewership hit an all-time
high of 24.5 million homes -- up more than 2.6 million, or about 12 percent -- according
to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau.
Cable's showing was particularly strong because it was
pitted against broadcast during the February sweeps, when the broadcasters showcase some
of their best fare.
"Viewers have been conditioned to check out the new
shows on the broadcast networks," said Tim Brooks, USA Networks Inc.'s senior
vice president of research. "Increasingly, they seem to be checking out things on
cable during the sweeps. They do it in the heart of the broadcasters' big
Cable did have its own advantages in the first quarter,
with the all-news networks getting a boost from President Clinton's Senate
impeachment hearings and the U.S. strikes against the former Yugoslavia.
Among individual cable networks, USA Network was No. 1 in
primetime ratings in the first quarter, followed by Turner Network Television. USA posted
a 2.6 primetime rating, up 4 percent compared with the year-ago quarter. TNT, in turn, did
a 2.2 rating, up 10 percent.
Nickelodeon and TBS Superstation tied for the No. 3 slot,
each with 2.0 ratings. Both networks were up 5 percent from a year ago, Nielsen said.
For total-day, Nick reigned as No. 1 for the 14th
consecutive quarter with a 1.6 rating, the same as a year ago.
"This dominance is not sporadic," said Betsy
Frank, MTV Networks' executive vice president of research and development.
Basic cable has usually enjoyed strong first quarters,
according to Jonathan Sims, the CAB's vice president of research, gaining 11.7
million households in primetime since 1994.
At USA and Turner, wrestling continued to be a ratings
juggernaut. But the No. 1-rated cable show for the first quarter was the premiere of
TNT's original movie, Purgatory, which scored a 6.6 rating Jan. 10. TNT also
had four of the top-10-rated theatrical movies, with TBS airing the other six.
Turner has made a hefty investment to acquire the
broadcast-network windows for high-profile feature films.
"We're now seeing these theatrical movies enter
into the top 100 shows for the quarter with considerably higher ratings," Sieber
The biggest ratings losers in primetime were: Fox Family
Channel, which dropped 36 percent to a 0.9 rating; CNN Headline News and Bravo, both down
33 percent, each to a 0.2; and FX, which slipped 30 percent to a 0.7 rating. Fox
Family's numbers also plummeted in total day, down 50 percent to a 0.3 rating.
Fox Family's household-ratings plunge reflects the
repositioning of the network and its effort to attract young families and kids, according
to president Rich Cronin.
"Basically, we lost a lot of 50-plus viewers -- more
than one-half of them," he said. "That was by design."
But Fox Family was up 15 percent in primetime with kids two
to 11, up 27 percent with teens 12 to 17 and flat with young adults 18 to 34, according to
"We need to grow the kids, teens and young adults to
get the households back up," he said.
FX officials said the network's primetime numbers last
year were inflated by its acquisitions -- NYPD Blue and The X-Files -- and
they claimed that they expected this year's falloff in ratings. For the total day, FX
boasted that it saw its best ratings ever in the first quarter -- a 0.6, up 20 percent.
The biggest primetime-ratings gainers were Courtroom
Television Network and Fox News Channel, which were both up 100 percent, to a 0.2 and a
0.6 rating, respectively.
In fact, buoyed by the impeachment hearings, for the full
quarter -- its highest ever -- FNC beat MSNBC in both ratings and primetime households.
Home & Garden Television soared by 40 percent, to a 0.7
primetime rating, and Travel Channel was up 50 percent, to a 0.3.
MTV: Music Television's primetime ratings were flat,
at a 0.7, but its numbers for its target audience -- 12 to 34 -- increased 17 percent, to
a 0.7 from a 0.6, according to Frank.