Basic cable didn't go gangbusters in the third quarter, but
it did quite nicely in the first week of the new TV season, when competition was fiercest
from broadcasters premiering hot new shows.
In the just-closed third quarter, basic cable saw its
primetime ratings increase 5 percent, to a 25.9 compared with a 24.6 a year ago, according
to Nielsen Media Research data released by Turner Entertainment Research last week.
Yet one year ago at this time, cable was up a whopping 13
percent, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. vice president of audience development Robert
Sieber said. During the third quarter of last year, cable registered some of its biggest
gains ever, according to Sieber, creating a tough watershed to match or top this year.
Basic cable's household delivery in the third quarter was
up 1.7 million homes, to 25.9 million. But that growth paced behind the jump of 2 million
homes Sieber had projected.
In the third quarter, the broadcast networks saw their
audience erosion continue in primetime, but the slippage wasn't huge. The "Big
Four" were down 5 percent compared with a year ago, to a 23 rating. And when The WB
Television Network and United Paramount Network are added in, broadcast slipped only 2
percent, to a 25, according to Nielsen.
"The fact that their erosion has slowed doesn't mean
we aren't growing," Sieber said. "We are still growing in the first week of the
In fact, the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau said cable
opened the new 1999-2000 season Sept. 20 through 26 with its highest viewership levels
ever for a season-kickoff week.
In this season's premiere week, basic cable's primetime
ratings rose 7 percent, to a 25.3, while its household delivery soared 2 million homes to
25.5 million. In contrast, the Big Four saw their ratings drop 1 percent to a 32.4, while
the seven broadcast networks (which includes Pax TV) rose 3 percent to a 36.
"Broadcast in the first week of the season was flat to
shifting down from a year ago," Sieber said.
The seven broadcast networks' showing was rather lackluster
in the first week of the new season, even though they scheduled 28 percent more primetime
premieres than a year ago.
In terms of individual ad-supported cable networks in the
third quarter, USA Network maintained its No. 1 spot in primetime with a 2.3 rating, up 5
percent from a year ago.
The network enjoyed a nice lift from its original Journey
to the Center of the Earth miniseries, which posted a 4.3 rating, or 3.3 million
homes, according to USA Networks Inc. senior vice president of research Tim Brooks. Journey
was the highest-rated miniseries on basic cable since USA's Moby Dick last
USA was followed in primetime by TBS Superstation, with a
1.9 rating, flat versus 1998. Turner Network Television ranked third in primetime with a
1.8, down 5 percent.
There was a four-way tie for fourth place, with ESPN,
Nickelodeon, Lifetime Television and Cartoon Network all posting 1.7 ratings. But while
ESPN and Nick were down 6 percent and 19 percent, respectively, Lifetime and Cartoon were
each up 6 percent.
There are several reasons why Nick declined by
double-digits in primetime, according to general manager Cyma Zarghami.
"On a national level, kids' demographics are flat
compared with a year ago," she said. In addition, during the third quarter of last
year, Nick did its "Block Party" stunt and launched reruns of The Brady Bunch,
helping to lift its ratings. This summer, Nick didn't have any such launches, according to
For total-day ratings, Nick racked up its 16th
straight quarter as No. 1. In the third quarter, Nick did a 1.5 total-day rating, down 6
percent from a year ago. Cartoon was second in total day with a 1.2, a 20 percent
In primetime in the third quarter, the all-news cable
networks were among the biggest losers with the notable exception of Fox News Channel,
which was flat.
Most of the all-news networks suffered because they posted
huge ratings last August, when they aired grand-jury testimony on the President
Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal and the U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan, according to
Sieber. "The news networks are going to be off year-ago numbers based on that,"
In primetime in the third quarter, Cable News Network was
down 33 percent, to a 0.8 from a 1.2 a year ago. CNBC dropped a dramatic 50 percent, to a
0.4 from a 0.8. MSNBC was down 20 percent, to a 0.4 from a 0.5. CNN Headline News dipped
33 percent, to a 0.2. Only FNC didn't weather any losses, staying flat at a 0.5 primetime
The other big losers in third-quarter primetime were Fox
Family Channel, which was down 31 percent to a 0.9 from a 1.3, and FX, down 13 percent to
The third quarter's biggest primetime gainers were:
Courtroom Television Network, which saw its ratings increase 300 percent to a 0.4 from a
0.1; MTV: Music Television, which was up 33 percent to a 1.2; Food Network, also up 33
percent to a 0.4; and ESPN2 and The Weather Channel, each up 25 percent to a 0.5 from a
Cable is upbeat about its prospects for the fourth quarter.
"You will see cable's erosion of broadcast continue," Brooks said.
In the case of Turner, TNT and TBS have a number of marquee
programming events set for the rest of the year, including Animal Farm on TNT and
original movie Time Shifters on TBS, as well as theatricals such as The English
Patient, Evita and Michael on the two networks.