Basic cable started off 1998 with a bang, racking up a 14percent gain in first-quarter primetime ratings. A number of cable networks broke recordsfor the quarter, including No. 1 USA Network with its blockbuster miniseries, Moby Dick.
Despite the Winter Olympic Games on CBS, the pace ofcable's growth in primetime marched on unabated during the first three months of thisyear. In primetime, basic cable's aggregate ratings averaged a 22.4, up from a 19.7 in theyear-ago quarter, according to Nielsen Media Research data supplied by TBS Research.
In contrast, the Big Four broadcast networks were down 3percent in primetime ratings, to a 36.1 from a 37.3. CBS, which aired the Olympics fromNagano, Japan, was the only Big Four network to post a first-quarter ratings gain inprimetime, up 9 percent.
Cable's ratings bonanza couldn't come at a worse time forbroadcast. Last week, word leaked that the entertainment-division chiefs of the Big Fourmet on St. Patrick's Day to discuss ways to unify against cable. The broadcasters weretrying to curtail recent public backbiting amongst themselves.
As it turns out, the Olympics' impact on basic cableappeared minimal. If the Games were factored out, cable's first-quarter primetime-ratingsgain would have been 15 percent -- only slightly better than the 14 percent increase thatit actually registered, according to Robert Sieber, vice president of audience developmentfor Turner Broadcasting System Inc.
"We [cable] were looking for low double-digit gains,so we're a little ahead of where I thought we'd be," Sieber said. "We're pickingup speed."
Added Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research for USANetworks, "I was surprised that cable's growth was so robust."
USA was the big winner in the first quarter for primetime,ranking No. 1 with a 2.6 rating, a 30 percent increase over the year-ago period. USA wasfollowed by Turner Network Television with a 2.1, a 5 percent increase; then by TBSSuperstation and Nickelodeon, tied for the No. 3 slot, each getting a 1.9.
USA claimed that since it now has such a big lead inprimetime, it will regain its crown as the top-rated cable network for all of 1998,replacing TNT in the No. 1 position.
"With this big of a lead in the first quarter, no onehas ever lost the year," Brooks said.
But USA wasn't the only programmer with something to crowabout. Lifetime Television posted its best first-quarter ratings ever, doing a 1.8primetime rating, up 20 percent. The History Channel saw its best quarter ever, increasing20 percent in primetime to a 0.7.
Comedy Central -- riding the wave of South Park'spopularity -- and CNBC both posted 0.7 ratings in primetime, each up 40 percent. FX was up67 percent, to a 1.0, while The Travel Channel saw an increase of 100 percent, to a 0.2.VH1 enjoyed a 33 percent bump-up in primetime, to a 0.4 rating.
It was a quarter for shattering records. On March 16, basiccable scored its best national primetime rating ever, a 28.9, overtaking its priorprimetime high -- a 28.2 Dec. 29. March's record-setting Monday was boosted by the airingof the second part of Moby Dick and by TNT's WCW Monday Nitro.
Moby Dick itself scored a hefty 8.1 rating for theinitial airings of both parts of the miniseries, delivering the largest audience of anyentertainment programming in the history of basic cable.
But Brooks noted that Moby Dick only minimallycontributed to USA's first-quarter primetime average, which would have been a 2.5 withoutit, instead of a 2.6. USA's gains are the result of a number of factors"clicking," he said.
For example, ratings for USA's original "Sunday NightHeat" block were up 40 percent, to a 2.1, compared with last year. In addition, Walker,Texas Ranger averaged a 2.7 for the quarter, a 50 percent increase from Murder, SheWrote a year ago. And ratings for USA's wrestling series, WWF Raw, are up 59percent, to a 3.5.
"Those were the big three drivers [for USA in thefirst quarter]," Brooks said.
David Poltrack, executive vice president of research andplanning for CBS, said he wasn't surprised that the Olympics didn't halt or put a crimp incable's first-quarter ratings increases. He said Olympics viewers are typically light TVviewers with high socioeconomic profiles.
"Cable's audience is a heavy television-viewingaudience, so they're not the audience that would be watching the Olympics," Poltracksaid. "Light TV viewers came in to watch the Olympics."
In addition, he said, ABC and NBC ran a lot of rerunsduring CBS' coverage of the Games, basically conceding primetime during that period to the"Tiffany Network." Poltrack believes that there was "a churning ofaudience" when regular ABC and NBC viewers who didn't want to see repeats, and whoweren't interested in the Olympics, went to cable.
The major national broadcasters have been without a singleorganization to champion their cause to the press and advertisers since the NetworkTelevision Association was disbanded in 1995. At their March 17 meeting, which was firstreported in The New York Times, the Big Four entertainment chiefs talked aboutjointly trying to promote the value of broadcast TV over cable. The executives, bitterrivals, also reportedly discussed the need to be less nasty and critical of each other inpublic forums.
The Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau argues cable's caseto Madison Avenue, and now, Turner is also making a pitch to ad agencies on behalf of thecable industry prior to the upfront market.
Asked about the broadcaster meeting, CAB president JosephOstrow said, "I guess what it says is that they're hurting. But I don't know if youfix a gaping hole with a Band-Aid. It's just a Band-Aid on a big wound."
According to Ostrow, "They [broadcasters] continue todo one-size-fits-all programming, and the consumer is not interested. Cable networks arebetter-equipped to satisfy those needs."
With the way that cable's gains are trending, Sieber saidthat by 1999, he expects basic cable to average a higher primetime rating than the BigThree broadcast networks.