Basic cable climbed to all-time highs in primetime ratings
this month, driven by a mixed bag that included the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President
Clinton's sordid admission, a Titanic special, sharks, The Family
Channel's relaunch as Fox Family Channel and a fictional movie about a
president's personal life being laid bare by the press.
One of the biggest record-breakers for cable -- and there
were several of them -- came last Monday night (Aug. 17), when Clinton addressed the
nation. Boosted by the all-news channels' much-viewed coverage of that event, cable
racked up its best primetime ratings ever for one night, with a 29.8, according to Turner
Entertainment Research figures from Nielsen Media Research data. That beat cable's
prior single-night primetime high of 28.9, set March 16.
The all-news channels have seen their viewership soar as
they track the White House scandal, and those gains helped basic cable to shatter ratings
records during the week of Aug. 10 to 16. Cable racked up a 25 primetime rating and 47
share, both all-time highs for a single week, according to Turner.
"It is just record after record," said Jonathan
Sims, vice president of research for the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau. "But
this one [Aug. 10 to 16] blew the shingles off the past record."
Aside from the nonstop Lewinsky coverage, an eclectic slate
of strong programming -- ranging from Discovery Channel's Titanic Live and
"Shark Week" to TBS Superstation's broadcast premiere of The American
President -- also propelled cable's viewership during that week.
"There was a confluence of big programming events,
which certainly helped to boost the numbers, really smashing the previous all-time
high," Sims said.
That week's 25 rating represented a 17 percent
increase compared with the same week a year ago. And cable's performance that week
eclipsed the six broadcast networks' combined 23.5 rating and 44 share, according to
Robert Sieber, vice president of audience development for Turner Broadcasting System Inc.
Broadcast's ratings were down 11 percent.
Also during that week, cable increased its audience in
primetime by 3.7 million homes, to 24.5 million. Sieber said those gains came directly out
of the hide of the broadcasters, which lost more than 2 million homes that week. Total TV
viewing was up by 1 million households, which also contributed to cable's bonanza.
"A major part of cable's gains clearly came out
of broadcast," Sieber said. "And the [audience] pie got bigger."
Bad news for Clinton continued to be good news for the
24-hour news channels last week. Cable News Network's coverage of the
president's speech scored a 7.3 rating, reaching 5.4 million households, making it
the fifth-highest-rated program on basic cable so far this year. The 7.3 rating was also
CNN's highest since the O.J. Simpson criminal trial verdict Oct. 3, 1995, which
posted a 10.0 rating.
Just prior to Clinton's address, CNN's Larry
King Live won its highest rating in three years, tallying a 5.3 rating and 3.9 million
Live coverage of the Clinton speech by CNN, ABC, CBS, Fox,
NBC, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and CNN Headline News tallied a combined 46.9 rating, which
translated to 45.9 million households and 67.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
MSNBC's coverage of the address did a 2.2 rating, or
942,000 homes, while FNC earned a 1.4 rating, or 462,000 homes.
CNN's Lewinsky-related programming this year has been
averaging a 1.2 rating, double the network's overall ratings to date of 0.5,
according to CNN spokesman Howard Polskin.
And CNN's rival all-news channels are also riding high
with the White House scandal. According to FNC, it has posted a 59 percent viewership
increase for total day and an 82 percent increase in primetime since the week of
Lewinsky's grand jury testimony.
FNC's total-day ratings went to a 0.2, or 59,000
homes, from a 0.1 rating, or 37,000 homes. In primetime, FNC jumped up to a 0.4 rating, or
131,000 homes, from a 0.2, or 72,000 homes.
"The interest of the public [in the Lewinsky scandal]
will continue," said Chet Collier, FNC's senior vice president of news.
"The public's appetite and interest is here. And there is room for three news
CNBC also enjoyed ratings records with its coverage
surrounding the Clinton speech. For example, a special two-hour Rivera Live from 9
p.m. to 11 p.m. led the night for the network, with a 1.5 rating and 1 million households.
Gad Romann, president of The Romann Group ad agency, said
he has had more clients clamoring to buy cable as more viewers turn to cable for major
breaking-news events like the Lewinsky scandal. He believes that viewers perceive that
they get the news unfiltered from cable, whereas they fear that broadcast networks slant
the news with their coverage and commentary.
"Cable has found a new reality by bringing about a
facet of cinema verité that the broadcast networks can't do," Romann said.
Cable's heady August ratings growth was propelled by
much more than just the news channels and Clinton's follies and foibles. TBS'
broadcast debut Aug. 16 of The American President -- in which Michael Douglas'
lead character faces political scandal and ruin for romancing an environmental lobbyist --
drew a whopping 6.6 rating in its universe with its 8 p.m. airing. That telecast delivered
nearly 5 million households -- the largest audience of any theatrical in basic-cable
The American President's total U.S. rating was a
5.1, which outperformed what the broadcast networks were offering on that night.
But TBS wasn't the only nonnews cable network breaking
ratings records. Discovery's Titanic Live Aug. 16, broadcast from
two-and-a-half miles below the ocean's surface, garnered a 4.1 rating, which
represented more than 3 million households. That made it Discovery's
second-highest-rated program, and it ranked as the highest-rated documentary in 1998 among
ad-supported networks, in both households and adults 25 to 54.
From Aug. 9 to 16, Discovery also aired its popular
"Shark Week" programming.
As for Titanic Live's performance, Discovery
general manager Mike Quattrone said, "We were thrilled. When you have the
highest-rated documentary in 1998, you can't complain too much ... And we had a real
strong Shark Week leading up to this."
The Family Channel relaunched Aug. 15, during cable's
record week, as Fox Family Channel, with a whole new programming lineup. Its weekend-debut
programming saw ratings increases over the old Family Channel.
Cable's strong ratings growth now has a good shot of
continuing into the fall season, since the "Big Four" broadcast networks'
new programs are perceived as a lackluster crop, according to some cable-industry
After having lost so much audience this summer, the
broadcast networks will also be at a disadvantage because fewer viewers will see promos
for their fall shows, according to Sims.
"It's going to be rough sledding for them when
the new season starts," he said.