For most top cable networks, it was a year of missing viewers in primetime. Maybe they lost audience to original fare on Netflix, or to other unmeasured programs on video-on-demand, tablets or mobile platforms. Or maybe more viewers waited more than seven days to watch recorded shows. Perhaps more viewers strayed to smaller networks.
Whatever the reasons, 18 of cable’s top 25 channels took it on the chin in 2014.
Notables USA Network (No. 2), Disney Channel (4), History (5) and TBS (6) all sustained double-digit erosion.
Top dog ESPN saw its primetime audience increase 5%, to 2.32 million viewers from 2.21 million in 2013, when it finished third, benefiting from National Football League and college-football games.
Other gainers, according to a Disney Media Networks analysis of Nielsen data — live-plus-seven-day ratings from Dec. 30, 2013 through Dec. 14, 2014, and live-plus-same-day figures for Dec. 15- 28 — were ninth-ranked Discovery, up 2% to 1.39 million viewers from 1.37 million in 2013, and No. 10 HGTV, which grew 5% to 1.34 million from 1.28 million.
Elsewhere, No. 18 TLC inched up 1% to 1.07 million from 1.06 million. Spike TV rose 4% to 905,000 from 873,000 to finish 22nd, ahead of No. 23 Hallmark Channel, which benefited from a strong performance from its cadre of Christmas movies, to notch 3% improvement to 894,000 from 868,000 in 2013.
Investigation Discovery, though, was the big gainer, scoring a 13% advance to 821,000 watchers from 724,000, as it ranked 24th overall.
For the rest of the top 25, the numbers skewed wrong.
No. 2 USA fell from its usual top perch, shedding 21% to 2.13 million watchers from a sector-best 2.69 million in 2013. With its competitors losing more ground, TNT moved up from fifth to third, averaging 1.99 million, 4% less than its 2.08 million mark the prior year. The network registered six of basic cable’s top 15 original dramas, with stalwarts like Rizzoli & Isles joined by newcomers The Last Ship and The Librarians.
Sliding from second in 2013, fourth-ranked Disney Channel saw its total viewership decline 22% to 1.91 million from 2.44 million, while fifth-place History was off 14% to 1.82 million from 2.02 million in 2013, when it ranked fourth. TBS stayed sixth, even though it decreased 10% to 1.817 million from 2.02 million.
ESPN and USA were the only cable networks to average more than 2 million watchers in primetime during 2014, versus six the prior year.
Cable news leader Fox News Channel lost 1% of its average audience to 1.78 million from 1.79 million, but remained in seventh place. FX maintained its eighth-place spot, despite a 4% decrease to 1.40 million watchers from 1.47 million.
Missing the bump from the final run of Emmy winner Breaking Bad, 11th-ranked AMC dropped 4% to 1.33 million from 1.39 million, despite the runaway success of The Walking Dead, which tallied 16 of cable’s largest 20 audiences in 2014.
Cartoon Network was 12th with 1.28 million, down 8% from 1.40 million in 2013. A&E, whose hit reality show Duck Dynasty cooled, plummeted 30% to 1.26 million from 1.79 million.
ABC Family was No. 14, dipping 2% to 1.20 million from 1.22 million, ahead of Syfy, which lost 7% to 1.113 million from 1.19 million, despite the publicity and social whirl for the second Sharknado telefilm.
Lifetime, at 16, and No. 17 Adult Swim were both off 13% to 1.111 million and 1.08 million, respectively. While No. 18 TLC pushed up, the next three services, Food Network, Nick at Nite and Bravo, receded at respective clips of 5%, 2% and 4% to 1.067 million, 1.065 million and 968,000 watchers.
With Spike, Hallmark and ID all to the good, MTV was the last member of cable’s top 25 to retreat, down 4% to 778,000 from 813,000.