Only the weather generated as much heat this summer as cable's original programs, which helped the industry post record viewership levels in its battle with the broadcast networks.
With one week left to be tallied in the summer season, Lifetime Television is poised to extend its household ratings lead, but USA Network — on the strength of two top original dramas — is expected to draw more viewers in major adult demographic categories than any other network.
Through Aug. 18, cable is projected to finish the summer — which for ratings purposes began May 27 and ended Aug. 25 — with a record 53 percent share of the primetime audience, up from 48 percent last year, according to a Turner Broadcasting System Inc. analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. On the flip side, the seven broadcast networks' weighted share will drop from 42 in 2001 to 38 percent this season.
Turner chief research officer Jack Wakshlag said cable's performance was boosted by strong ratings for several original series. Six scripted originals have averaged at least a 2.0 rating during the summer: USA Network's Monk
(3.4 rating) and The Dead Zone
(3.3); Lifetime's Strong Medicine
(2.8), The Division
(2.4) and For The People
(2.2); and Turner Network Television's Witchblade: The Series
"When you look on the broadcast side, two or three hits out of ten is a good batting average, and cable has done far better than that this summer," Wakshlag said. "The networks are getting better at [developing original programming] and the networks are getting bigger, so they have a greater voice to promote [programming]."
Nevertheless, the broadcast networks, driven by the fall introduction of their new lineups, will most likely regain their viewership advantage in the fourth quarter and first-quarter 2003.
"The cable networks are becoming the dominant source for half a year and the broadcast networks will be dominant for the other half," he said.
But on the news front, where 59 percent of viewers receive their information from cable outlets, Wakshlag believes the medium will continue to build on its advantage:
"People are used to getting the news when they want it," he said.
As for individual networks, Fox News Channel led the pack with a 0.6 total-day rating, up 50 percent from last summer. Cable News Network was the only other news service to post a ratings increase during the period, rising 67 percent to a 0.5.
MSNBC and CNN Headline News were flat with a 0.3 and a 0.2, respectively, while CNBC was down 33 percent to a 0.2.
In primetime, Fox News grew 57 percent to a 1.1, while CNN moved up 14 percent to a 0.8 average. MSNBC and Headline were even with last summer at a 0.4 and 0.2, respectively. CNBC declined 50 percent to a 0.2.
Lifetime is positioned to finish with a 2.1 primetime household rating, which would best TNT with a 1.9. USA is expected to take the top spot in primetime among adults 18 to 34, 18 to 49 and 25 to 54.
Perennial total-day power Nickelodeon is that category's projected winner for the summer with a 1.6 mark, ahead of Cartoon Network's 1.3 average.