The summer season turned up sizzling viewership and ratings performances for cable, as viewers flocked to cable services and away from the broadcasters during the third quarter.
While USA Network, Nickelodeon and Disney Channel topped all basic-cable networks in several key ratings categories, many services posted record ratings tallies during the quarter, when they presented an array of popular new and returning original-series programming.
Ad-supported cable networks recorded a giant 61 share of the audience during the period of June 26 to Sept. 24, easily besting the seven broadcast networks' 32.7 share over the same span. Cable increased its share by 1 point in the third quarter, while broadcast remained even with last year's share total, according to a Turner Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.
In the primetime household ratings race, Disney Channel scored a first-time victory for a full quarter, finishing ahead of USA and TNT.
However, in actual households and total viewers, USA edged out Disney to take the third-quarter primetime crown. USA averaged 2.049 million households while Disney had 2.021 million. And in total viewers, USA averaged 2.745 million compared with Disney's 2.684 million.
Disney rode a record ratings and viewership performance from its Aug. 25 original movie The Cheetah Girls 2 to a 2.3 primetime household rating during the quarter, up 15% from the year-ago period, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen data.
Disney finished ahead of USA and TNT, which tied for second in household ratings, each with a 2.2. USA gained 22%, while TNT slipped 4%.
ESPN, scoring a 21% advance, followed USA and TNT with a 1.7 household average, while Lifetime Television registered a 1.5 rating for the third quarter, down 6%. Cartoon Network was next, posting a 1.4 rating, flat versus the year-earlier period.
There was a three-way tie among TBS, Fox News Channel and Hallmark Channel, as each registered a 1.3 rating. However, the networks took different paths to their shared mark: TBS was flat, while Hallmark saw an 18% increase. Fox News, minus comparisons to last August and September's extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, dropped 35%.
That trio was followed by Nick at Nite with a 1.2, down 29% from third-quarter 2005.
Measured on a 24-hour basis, Nickelodeon was tops for the 46th consecutive quarter, averaging a flat 1.8 household rating, comfortably ahead of Disney's 1.4 rating, which was up 17% from last year.
GAINERS AND LOSERS
A number of networks enjoyed best-ever Nielsen measurements. Bravo, on the strength of its hit series Project Runway, set network records for any quarter in primetime household rating (0.6), total viewers (627,000) and among the 18-to-34 (179,000) 18-to-49 (355,000) and 25-to-54 (351,000) demographics.
HGTV and Oxygen also posted record primetime marks during the third quarter, with household ratings of 1.0 and 0.3, respectively.
Other primetime gainers included: Discovery (1.0, up 25%); A&E (1.0, up 11%); Food Network and TLC (0.7, up 17%); SoapNet and Animal Planet (0.6, up 20%); The Biography Channel (0.3, up 50%); and ESPN Classic (0.2, up 100%).
Networks not faring so well during the quarter included: MTV (1.0, down 9%); Spike TV (1.0, down 23%); ABC Family (0.8, down 11%); CNN (0.8, down 20%); MSNBC (0.4, down 20%); Headline News (0.3, down 25%); and The Weather Channel (0.3, down 40%).
Pro and college football games, along with episodes of TNT's hit Kyra Sedgwick series The Closer and two original cable movies, accounted for the 10 highest-rated programs for the quarter.
ESPN's record-setting Monday Night Football telecasts took the top three spots — and the pro-football games trailed only CNN's coverage of a November 1993 debate between then Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot as the most-viewed shows in cable history. Meanwhile the total sports network's coverage of the Sept. 4 Florida State-Miami college football clash was fifth, with a 6.9 rating.
The Closer clinched the sixth, and eighth through tenth spots, with the June 26 conclusion of AMC's Broken Trail miniseries and the Aug. 25 airing of Disney's The Cheetah Girls 2 movie taking the fourth and seventh spots, respectively.
Linda Moss contributed to this story.