Cable Nets Survive Summers 1-2 Punch

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Despite the double punch of Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, broadcast failed to knock out cable in primetime ratings this summer.

While cable's viewership growth slowed this summer, it still saw single-digit gains. And while broadcast did see its audience erosion stop, only two of the "Big Four" broadcast networks posted ratings increases.

From May 29 through Sept. 3, basic cable saw its primetime ratings increase 5 percent, to 26.6 from 25.3 a year ago, according to Turner Entertainment Research from Nielsen Media Research data.

The "Big Three"-ABC, CBS and NBC-also rose 5 percent, to a 19.9 rating from 19.0 last summer. Including the Fox network, the four broadcasters were collectively up 2 percent, to a 22.6 from a 22.2.

"The perception was that the broadcast networks would clobber cable this summer," Turner Broadcasting System Inc. vice president of audience development Robert Sieber said. "The perception was wrong, obviously. We didn't get rolled over by a tank or bulldozer. They survived, and we're prospering."

Cable's growth this year didn't manage to keep pace with past increases, though. Two years ago, cable was up 10 percent as far as primetime ratings in the summer, while the Big Three were down 1 percent.

With all of the press and hoopla about Survivor and Big Brother, CBS only saw a 2 percent gain in its primetime ratings this summer, although it did attract a more desirable demographic of younger viewers. ABC, riding on Millionaire's multinight glory, was up 10 percent in primetime ratings this summer.

Despite having its blockbuster shows, broadcast lost ground to cable in terms of household delivery. According to the Cable- television Advertising Bureau, for the first time ever, cable surpassed all seven broadcast networks in primetime delivery, despite the "slam-dunk success" of shows like Survivor, CAB vice president of research Jonathan Sims said.

In the summer, cable averaged 26.8 million homes in primetime, while the seven broadcasters had 25.8 million, according to Turner's analysis of Nielsen data.

"If I'm in the broadcast business now, I would have a creepy sensation about the overall health of my audience," Sims said.

Lifetime Television this summer premiered its hour-long original dramatic series, Strong Medicine, and it ranks as the highest-rated new primetime series on cable so far this year. It is averaging a 2.0 rating, or 1.5 million households. "It got off to a great start," Lifetime senior vice president of research Tim Brooks said.

Brooks was not overwhelmed by broadcast's 5 percent ratings gain this summer. "You look to not only grow yourself, but to stop your competitors," he said. "The broadcasters haven't done anything to stop cable from narrowing the gap with them. And their summer is based on two shows [Survivor and Millionaire]. Those two shows won't carry them through the fall season. They have to survive, no pun intended, with shows that are more traditional."

This summer, new programming fare, both broadcast's and cable's, succeeded in bringing more viewers to the tube. In primetime, overall TV viewership was up 3 percent over last year.

As a result, it's likely that the Big Three will increase their efforts to premiere new shows during the summer, rather than just airing reruns. This means cable will lose its monopoly on debuting new series during that period.

In August, for individual cable networks in primetime, sister services TBS Superstation and Cartoon Network tied for No. 1, each with a 2.0 rating. TBS-the first network to hit the 80 million-subscriber benchmark-was up 5 percent from a year ago, while Cartoon saw an 11 percent increase.

Cartoon-which launched its new "Cartoon Cartoon Fridays" lineup June 9-enjoyed phenomenal ratings this summer.

USA Network was in third place in primetime with a 1.9 rating, down 10 percent. In fourth place were Nickelodeon and Lifetime, each with a 1.8 rating.

USA took a "ratings hit" in August, partly because it is airing the U.S. Open tennis tournament, which doesn't do as well as the network's usual primetime lineup, but which attracts a younger, attractive demographic, according to Ray Giacopelli, USA Cable's vice president of research.

USA also replaced Walker, Texas Ranger at 8 p.m. with Nash Bridges. Giacopelli said that while Nash Bridges is doing a smaller household rating than Walker-a 1.7 versus a 2.1-it draws more 25- to 54-year-olds.

As for primetime gains in August, the all-news channels were big winners due to the Republican and Democratic conventions.

Cable News Network was up 33 percent to a 0.8, MSNBC was up 67 percent to a 0.5 and Fox News Channel was up 25 percent to a 0.5. In fact, for the first time ever, FNC beat CNBC in primetime in both ratings and households. FNC had a 0.5 rating, or 289,000 homes, versus CNBC's 0.4 rating, or 279,000 homes.

The other big primetime gainers in August were Courtroom Television Network, up 100 percent to a 0.8; Travel Channel and Odyssey Network, each up 50 percent to a 0.3; and Bravo, up 33 percent to a 0.4.

The biggest losers in primetime in August were Fox Family Channel, down 30 percent to a 0.7; and WGN and The Weather Channel, each down 25 percent, to a 0.6 and 0.3, respectively.

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