After four years of double-digit annual ratings gains,
basic cable saw its growth taper off a bit last year, with primetime increasing only 8
percent compared with 1998.
Cable racked up a 25.4 rating in primetime in 1999,
compared with 23.6 the prior year, according to Turner Entertainment Research from Nielsen
Media Research data. That's a slip from the increases posted annually from 1995
through 1998, when basic cable saw its primetime ratings jump up at clips of anywhere from
10 percent to 17 percent each year.
In fact, of the 37 cable networks that Turner has tracked
for more than one year, nine saw primetime ratings decreases, while another 10 were flat.
The cable programmers that saw their primetime numbers dip
in primetime last year included powerhouses such as Turner Network Television and
Cable-network officials last week downplayed the crimp on
cable's growth rate in 1999, saying the 8 percent increase -- which represents an
increased delivery of 2.1 million homes -- was nothing to sniff at or worry about.
"Cable in general is still up year-to-year," said
Ray Giacopelli, vice president of audience analysis for USA Networks Inc. "There are
gains in a year when the broadcast networks haven't crashed and burned."
Added Robert Sieber, vice president of audience development
for Turner Broadcasting System Inc., "An 8 percent growth rate in ratings is a very
healthy growth rate. I like to see gains of between 2 million and 3 million homes."
Last year, the broadcast networks continued to see their
primetime ratings slip. But it wasn't a huge slide the way it has been in the past.
The "Big Four" were down 4 percent, to a 28.3 from a 29.6, while the six
broadcast networks -- which includes United Paramount Network and The WB Television
Network -- dipped 3 percent to a 30.7.
Giacopelli and USA Network had plenty to be happy about:
USA kept its crown as No. 1 in primetime last year -- an honor it held through most of the
1990s -- up 4 percent to a 2.4.
Next in line was TBS Superstation, up 5 percent to a 2.0.
TNT tied Nick for third, with each posting 1.9 primetime ratings.
USA got a boost as its numbers for Monday-night wrestling
continued to soar -- up 39 percent, to a 6.1 from a 4.4 -- in 1999 versus 1998, according
to Giacopelli. USA's reairing of NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit roughly
two weeks after its broadcast play rewarded the network with a 27 percent increase in the
11 p.m. Sunday time slot, to a 1.4 rating from a 1.1.
From 1990 through 1999, USA averaged a 2.24 rating in
primetime, compared with TBS' 2.03 and TNT's 1.95, according to Giacopelli.
Nick held its top spot for total-day ratings in 1999 with a
1.5, which was down 6 percent from the prior year. It was followed by TBS, up 9 percent to
a 1.2, and Cartoon Network, up 10 percent to a 1.1.
The highest-rated basic-cable program of 1999 was MTV:
Music Television's 1999 Video Music Awards, which posted a whopping 11.1
rating Sept. 9.In fact, MTV was one of the biggest ratings gainers in 1999 in
primetime, up 29 percent, to a 0.9 from a 0.7.
"The turnaround has been incredible," said Betsy
Frank, executive vice president of research and planning for MTV Networks. "It was a
wonderful, wonderful year for MTV."
As for Nick's dip in household ratings last year, Nick
officials pointed out that the network is still No. 1 with kids two through 11 on a
national basis, and it maintained the same lead in terms of actual ratings points -- a 1.7
difference -- against No. 2 Cartoon as it did in 1998 against then-No. 2 Disney Channel.
"Given the increasingly competitive environment for
kids' television, Nick is still No. 1," Frank said.
She was also upbeat about cable's -- and even
broadcast's -- performance last year, with TV usage on the rise, up 2 percent,
despite dire predictions that it would plummet because of the Internet.
"When I look at the numbers, I see that basic cable is
still up significantly over a year ago," she said. "The numbers are still very
positive for cable."
Turner's sister networks, TNT and TBS, had a bonanza
year in 1999 in terms of their theatricals and original movies.
TNT and TBS had all of the top 10 theatricals on basic
cable, as well as all of the top five original movies. The highest-rated theatrical was The
Wizard of Oz on TBS, which did a 6.4 rating in November.
TBS kicked off its first year of airing its own made-for-TV
movies by scoring with the top-rated one last year, First Daughter,which
posted a 6.9 rating in August.
In primetime last year, the biggest ratings losers were
CNBC, down 29 percent to a 0.5; Fox Family Channel, down 25 percent to a 0.9; CNN Headline
News, down 33 percent to a 0.2; and Cable News Network, down 20 percent to a 0.8.
Officials for CNBC and CNN argued that they saw drops
because 1999 didn't have huge, ongoing stories like 1998's Monica Lewinsky-Bill
Clinton scandal. Yet two other all-news outlets -- Fox News Channel and MSNBC --
didn't see their primetime numbers dive. FNC was up 25 percent in primetime to a 0.5,
while MSNBC was flat with a 0.4.
The big primetime gainers last year were Courtroom
Television Network, up 300 percent to a 0.4; Bravo, up 50 percent to a 0.3; The Weather
Channel and The History Channel, each up 33 percent, to a 0.4 and 0.8, respectively; and
E! Entertainment Television, ESPN2, Animal Planet and TV Guide Channel, each up 25