Broadcast television took a licking during the very week
when it kicked off its highly promoted new fall season, as "Monicagate," home
run slugging and Hurricane Georges all gave cable a big boost.
In an unprecedented setback for the broadcasters, their
primetime ratings dropped 7.4 percent compared with the first week of the new season a
year ago. For Sept. 21 through 27, the seven broadcast networks -- the "Big
Four" of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, along with United Paramount Network, The WB
Television Network and Pax TV -- averaged a 35 rating, compared with 37.8 a year ago.
In contrast, basic cable's collective primetime
ratings during fall-premiere week hit 23.2, up a whopping 15 percent, with household
delivery up 16 percent, to 23.1 million homes, according to Turner Entertainment Research
from Nielsen Media Research data.
Cable is steamrolling into the fall, coming off a
spectacular third quarter -- a record-breaker during which cable debuted a raft of
original programming. Basic cable averaged a 23.8 primetime rating in the third quarter,
up 13 percent from a year ago, as well as a 44 share, both setting new quarterly records.
In the third quarter, USA Network ranked No. 1 in
primetime. Not surprisingly, all-news channels Cable News Network, MSNBC, Fox News Channel
and CNBC all enjoyed remarkable third-quarter ratings growth, benefiting from the
President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"[The third quarter] stands for our being particularly
strong," said Robert Sieber, vice president of audience development for Turner
Broadcasting System Inc. "This is not a fluke."
A number of broadcasters and other analysts were
downplaying the significance of the Big Four's poor showing, denying that it was a
harbinger of what's to come.
"Is there evolving change taking place? Yes,"
said Bill Carroll, director of programming at rep firm Katz Television. "Will it be
as drastic as the numbers realized [during the first week of the season]? Probably
Added Ave Butensky, president of the Television Bureau of
Advertising, "I'm not happy that it's down from a year ago. But broadcast
is coming from a deep basement -- the summer -- when there were diversions like baseball
[on cable]. I'd like to see how the next three weeks of the new season go."
David Poltrack, CBS' executive vice president of
research and planning, agreed. In the week of Sept. 21, he said, cable got an unusual
one-time lift from the televising of Clinton's grand jury testimony, the Mark
McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run race and The Weather Channel's hurricane coverage.
"That's where the majority of cable's growth
came from," Poltrack said. "There's no defection [of viewers from
broadcast]. The first week does not reflect what will happen all season."
In the third quarter, ESPN was up roughly 20 percent, to a
1.8, and TWC rose 33 percent, to a 0.4.
However, Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research at
USA Networks Inc., didn't buy into that argument, citing USA's gains.
"The president did not confess on USA," he said.
"We're an entertainment channel. We are not news."
Each of the three series that are part of USA's
"Sunday Night Heat" block drew over a 2.0 rating for the first time, and
wrestling continued to gain, Brooks said. In the third quarter, USA was up 5 percent, to a
"The broadcasters had Monica all over the place,
too," he argued.
Peter Chrisanthopoulos, Ogilvy & Mather's
president of broadcast and programming, has already forecast that the Big Four broadcast
networks will lose 7 percent of their audience during the fall season, which, critics and
advertisers said, is offering a lackluster array of new shows.
"Based on the 30 or so new shows, not more than three
will make it through the full season," Chrisanthopoulos added.
According to Poltrack, cable continued to cannibalize
itself in the third quarter, with larger cable networks losing audience to smaller ones.
According to Turner, three of the top-rated networks in primetime were down: Turner
Network Television and TBS Superstation were both tied at No. 3, dipping 21 percent and 5
percent, respectively; and A&E Network, at a 1.3, was down 7 percent.
Poltrack also claimed that cable's original summer
offerings were duds, with USA already canceling Sins of the City, and with Lifetime
Television's three original Tuesday-night series, which the network renewed last
week, earning the same household ratings as the shows that they replaced.
TNT was down because it lost the National Football League,
but its third-quarter primetime household rating this year is even with last year's
if the NFL is factored out, Sieber said.
But Turner's Cartoon Network was up 23 percent, to a
1.6, and its CNN was up 20 percent, to a 1.2. FNC soared 300 percent in primetime, to a
0.4. CNBC was up 100 percent, to a 0.8. And MSNBC increased 67 percent, to a 0.5.
Viacom Inc.'s cable stable performed well in the third
quarter. Buoyed by the launch of several new shows and its Video Music Awards, MTV:
Music Television did a 0.9 primetime rating, up 13 percent, noted Betsy Frank, executive
vice president of research and development for MTV Networks.
Nickelodeon ranked No. 2 in primetime, up 11 percent to a
2.1, and it was No. 1 in total day, with a 1.6. And VH1 did a 0.5 in primetime, a gain of
According to Frank, viewers who sampled cable's new
programming this summer have made those shows "part of their regular choice."
Now, broadcast has the job of luring that audience back,