Going into the long, hot summer, basic cable will have the
momentum of a strong second quarter behind it, after posting a 12 percent gain in
Cable registered a 22.1 rating for primetime in the second
quarter, compared with a 19.8 rating during the year-ago period, according to Nielsen
Media Research data provided last week by Turner Entertainment Research. In contrast, the
"Big Three" broadcast networks once again saw their primetime ratings slip, down
6 percent in the second quarter, with a 24.9 rating versus 26.5 a year ago.
"This is the biggest net increase in viewing that
we've ever had," said Robert Sieber, vice president of audience development for
Turner Broadcasting System Inc. "It's a strong start for the summer,
The outlook is especially upbeat for cable because an
inordinate number and wide variety of cable networks are debuting new series this summer,
looking to steal viewers away from the reruns that the broadcasters are airing.
And in another coup for cable last week, the
Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau released Nielsen data that showed that basic
cable's primetime share reached an all-time high during the week of June 15 to 21,
virtually tying for the first time ever with the combined share of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
During that week, cable's average share was 44.8, compared with the "Big
Four's" 45.1 aggregate share -- a razor-thin gap of only 0.3.
According to CAB president Joe Ostrow, this marked the
second time in three weeks that cable has shattered its primetime-share record.
In the second quarter, Turner Network Television won the
crown as the top-rated cable network in primetime, with a 2.3 rating, which was actually
down 4 percent from its year-ago rating of 2.4.
But a wide variety of cable networks enjoyed substantial
ratings increases in the second quarter. USA Network, the No. 2-ranked cable network in
primetime, had a 22 percent increase, to a 2.2 from a 1.8 rating.
Comedy Central, riding the raunchy coattails of the South
Park phenomenon, posted a 0.7 primetime rating, a whopping 75 percent increase from a
year ago. Food Network was up 50 percent in primetime, with a 0.3. FX saw a 33 percent
bump, to a 0.8. And The Family Channel increased 30 percent in primetime, to a 1.3. Fox
News Channel and The Travel Channel both doubled their meager ratings in primetime, to a
0.2 from a 0.1.
VH1 was up a hefty 67 percent in primetime, to a 0.5 from a
0.3 -- the best that the network has ever done for a full quarter. Jeff Gaspin, VH1's
senior vice president of programming, attributed the increase to three particularly strong
Behind the Music episodes -- on Studio 54, David Cassidy and Def Leppard -- as well
as to the network's airing of its Divas special.
"This is a flood tide for cable," said Tim
Brooks, senior vice president of research for USA Networks Inc. "It's very
USA is continuing to reap the benefits of ratings growth
for its keystone programming, according to Brooks. For example, in the second quarter, in
primetime, WWF Raw averaged a 4.6 rating, up 74 percent compared with last
year's 2.8. Walker, Texas Ranger averaged a 2.3 rating, up 39 percent from Murder,
She Wrote's 1.7 last year in the same time slot. And USA's "Sunday
Night Heat" original block is up 21 percent, to a 1.7 rating.
"The things that are driving our ratings are
continuing programming, as opposed to one-time stunts," Brooks said.
CNBC also did well, jumping 50 percent, to 0.6 from a 0.4
in primetime, while its total-day ratings for the second quarter doubled, to a 0.4 from a
0.2. In primetime, CNBC credited ratings increases for shows such as Hardball with
Chris Matthews, Equal Time and Rivera Live with boosting its viewership.
The network has also devoted a lot of time to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
In addition, CNBC boasted that in the second quarter, for
the first time ever, it topped Cable News Network in delivery of adults 25-to-54 during
the "business-news program day" -- Monday through Friday, from 5 a.m. to 7:30
p.m. CNBC delivered an average for the quarter of 91,000 adults from that demographic,
compared with 88,000 for CNN.
But according to Sieber, during the times when CNN's
business programming goes head-to-head against CNBC's business programming, CNN is
delivering more adults 25-to-54: 66,000, versus CNBC's 49,000.
For primetime and full-day, CNN's second-quarter
ratings were flat, at 0.8 and 0.4, respectively, despite the programming changes that Rick
Kaplan, who was named president of CNN/U.S. a year ago, has started to institute. TBS
Superstation was also flat in primetime and total-day ratings, with a 1.8 and 1.0,
Sieber blamed TNT's slight decline in primetime
ratings on having fewer National Basketball Association playoff games this year, and on
the fact that there were fewer key NBA contests. TNT did have more than one-third of the
top-rated cable programs for the quarter, or 19 of the top 50.
In terms of the second quarter overall, Sieber said, cable
is just continuing its march in terms of ratings gains.
"We've [basic cable] had strong double-digit
increases in ratings for the past five quarters," he said.
Among the networks that were down in primetime were ESPN,
dipping 7 percent to a 1.3 from a 1.4; ESPN2, down 20 percent to a 0.4 from a 0.5;
Discovery Channel, down 15 percent to a 1.1 from a 1.3; and CNN Headline News and Bravo,
both down 33 percent, both to a 0.2 from a 0.3.
Discovery saw some slippage in the second quarter for
several reasons, according to Steve McGowan, vice president of research for Discovery
Networks U.S. A year ago, the network got a special, one-time second-quarter boost from
its April 13 Anatomy of a Disaster documentary on the Titanic, which netted
a huge 4.5 rating, he said.
MTV: Music Television saw a 17 percent gain in primetime
and a 25 percent increase in total-day ratings. MTV attributed its ratings strides to the
performance of programming such as The 1998 MTV Music Awards, new series Celebrity
Death Match and a new lineup of primetime music shows.
Nickelodeon was No. 1 in total-day ratings in the second
quarter, with a 1.5, down 6 percent from its year-ago 1.6.