As nearly all the broadcast networks suffered declines,
basic cable ended 1998 with its primetime ratings up 13 percent. All but three out of 37
programming services posted gains or remained flat.
Last year, basic cable collectively tallied a 23 rating in
primetime, up from 20.4 the prior year, according to Nielsen Media Research data provided
by Turner Entertainment Research. In contrast, the Big Four broadcasters were down 6
percent, to a 29.7 primetime rating, from 31.5 in 1997.
In addition, cable's total household delivery last
year increased 14 percent, by 2.8 million homes, to 22.7 million. That helped drive the
overall increase in Homes Using Television last year, or HUTs, which increased by 900,000,
or 2 percent, to 57.1 million, according to Robert Sieber, vice president of audience
development for Turner Broadcasting System Inc.
"It's pretty remarkable," Sieber said of
last year's ratings tallies. "It's a very strong story for cable ... A 2.8
million gain doesn't look like cannibalization to me."
Sieber was referring to one of the broadcasters' main
-- and continuing -- swipes at cable: That the bumper crop of new cable networks is
cannibalizing viewership from the major established satellite services.
After a two-year absence from the top slot, and buoyed by
its original series and made-for-TV movies such as Moby Dick, USA Network ended
1998 No. 1 in primetime. Based on 51 of 52 weeks reporting for 1998, USA regained its
crown by averaging a 2.3 primetime rating for the year, 15 percent higher than its 1997
rating and two-tenths above its nearest competitor, Turner Network Television, which did a
According to USA Networks Inc. senior vice president of
research Tim Brooks, USA has been in first place in primetime for seven of the nine years
TNT, down 5 percent in primetime last year, suffered from
its lack of National Football League games and from the National Basketball Association
In primetime for 1998, USA and TNT were followed by
Nickelodeon, with a 2.0; TBS Superstation, with a 1.9; ESPN and Lifetime Television, both
with a 1.6; Cartoon Network, with a 1.5; A&E Network, with a 1.3; and Fox Family
Channel and Discovery Channel, both at a 1.2.
Out of nearly 40 cable networks, only TNT, WGN and ESPN2
saw their primetime ratings drop last year. WGN was down 10 percent, to a 0.9; and ESPN2
dropped 20 percent, to a 0.4.
"Virtually every cable network is up," Brooks
said. "There is hardly any fragmentation."
Of the six broadcast networks, excluding Pax TV, only The
WB Television Network gained in primetime last year, by 15 percent.
After several years of patiently cultivating original
series, USA got its payoff last year. The network's Sunday night block of original
programs averaged a 2.0 rating, a 25 percent increase over 1997.
USA also averaged a 3.6 rating for its debut telecasts of
its original movies, a 20 percent gain over last year's slate. The network's
coup on that front was its Moby Dick miniseries in March, which averaged an 8.1
rating, the largest audience in basic-cable history for original entertainment
The network also got a huge boost from its Monday night
wrestling shows, WWF Raw and WWF War Zone. They averaged a 4.4 rating, a
massive 63 percent gain over last year.
"The story about USA is that everything on this list
is continuing," Brooks said. "We are not held hostage to things like NFL
negotiations and the NBA lockout. Our strength is from our continuing series."
Although TNT's primetime ratings dipped, for the third
consecutive year it was the No. 1 basic-cable network in the primetime delivery of adults
18 to 49, up 21 percent, and adults 25 to 54, up 22 percent.
TNT's Monday-night wrestling, WCW Monday Nitro,
slightly outpaced USA, averaging a 4.5 rating. That was a 22 percent gain over 1997.
The biggest primetime ratings gainers last year were Fox
News Channel, up 300 percent to a 0.4; Travel Channel, up 100 percent to a 0.2; and CNBC,
up 75 percent to a 0.7. MTV: Music Television's primetime household ratings remained
flat last year, at 0.7. But MTV officials last week stressed that their
multimillion-dollar investment in original programming paid off in terms of its target
demographic, 12- to 34-year-olds. MTV said its total-day rating for that age group
increased by 25 percent, to a 0.5 from a 0.4, for the year and in the fourth quarter. MTV
also said it ended last year by posting its third consecutive quarter as the No. 1 cable
network for 12- to 24-year-olds.
The next stage that Brooks said he expects to see on the TV
landscape is individual cable programs outpacing broadcast shows in certain demographics.
Nick has already broken down that barrier in the kids' audience, Brooks pointed out.
Cable all-news networks rode a tide of extraordinary
breaking-news events last year, from the continuing Monica Lewinsky scandal, Iraq and last
month's impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.
In December, fueled by those events, news networks scored
big ratings. Cable News Network, on the day of the House of Representatives impeachment
vote, Dec. 19, did a total-day rating of 2.4, its highest-rated day since its coverage of
the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing on April 21, 1995. MSNBC did a 0.9 rating that
day, its fourth highest ever. And FNC did a 0.8 total-day rating that Saturday, its
highest total-day rating ever.
In primetime last year, CNN posted a 1.0 rating, up 11
percent from the prior year.