A First-Quarter Victory

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This year cable has marched on with its ratings growth, fueled by powerhouse programming such as wrestling, and with services like A&E Network and Court TV posting big gains in the first quarter.

For the first 27 weeks of the broadcast season, cable secured a 54.1 share of primetime household viewing, up from 52.9 for the same period last year, according to a Turner Broadcasting System analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. The broadcast networks had a 42.4 share, down from 45.0.

Turner projects that for the full season, which ends in May, cable will rack up a 54.2 primetime share, with broadcast tallying a 42.4.

“Early on in the season, people thought that the broadcast erosion was going to slow down,” said Jack Wakshlag, Turner’s chief research officer. “But you’ll see broadcast is off 1 million households for the Big Four.”

In the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 demographic in primetime, almost 20 cable networks saw strong increases in the first quarter.

“Look how different the picture remains, compared to broadcast,” Wakshlag said. “You’ve got 18 networks that gained 20% or more.”

And cable saw growth even though overall TV viewing was down 3% in the first quarter, according to Lifetime Television executive vice president of research Tim Brooks.

“Against the tide kind of flowing out, that’s pretty good,” he said.

USA Network took first place in cable’s first-quarter primetime ratings, an inch ahead of Disney Channel, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen data. USA, home of WWE Monday Night Raw, posted a 2.2 household rating, the same as it did in the same quarter last year. Disney Channel ranked second with a 2.1 rating, also flat.

“It’s [USA] a powerhouse network, and wrestling is the key to that,” Brooks said. “You look at the Top 10 [cable telecasts], and its wrestling, wrestling, wrestling.”

Turner Network Television came in third for the quarter, with a 1.6 rating, a 20% decline compared with the first quarter last year. Its sister service TBS and Fox News Channel tied for fourth place in primetime, each racking up a 1.4 rating. TBS slipped 7%, from a 1.5, while Fox News was up 8%, from a 1.3 a year ago.

Those networks were followed by Lifetime and A&E, which each posted a 1.3 rating. Lifetime was down 7% from the year-ago first quarter’s 1.4, while A&E was up a whopping 44%, from a 0.9.

A&E premiered reruns of The Sopranos in January, which has helped fuel gains in its viewership, according to executive vice president and general manager Bob DeBitetto. But its other acquired series, CSI: Miami, has also been a strong performer, he said. And A&E’s original series, such as Dog the Bounty Hunter, have seen double-digit ratings gains, in the 30% to 40% range.

“There’s no question that the premiere of The Sopranos on Jan. 10 accelerated the growth trend that we had been really enjoying since the middle of last year,” DeBitetto said. “But there are other factors that have played a part in the quarter. CSI: Miami gets a share of the credit. It’s grown significantly since it premiered last fall.”

Dramas such as The Sopranos and CSI: Miami are also having a “halo effect” on A&E, according to DeBitetto, attracting a new audience. There were 19 million new viewers who watched A&E in the first quarter that did not watch the network in December of last year, he said. Such viewers are sampling A&E’s original franchises, according to DeBitetto.

Court TV posted a 1.1 rating, which represented a sizable 38% increase. It was Court TV’s most-watched quarter ever. Wakshlag said that the justice channel’s “R.E.D.” action block — real, exciting, dramatic — was performing strong with various demographics, including adults 25 to 54, where the network ranked in the Top 10.

ESPN was down 29% in primetime, which network officials said was largely related to the different way Nielsen defined the first quarter last year and this year.

“The first quarter of last year included the last week of 2005, which was our highest-rated week ever,” ESPN communications director Rebecca Gertsmark said. “That last week of 2005 was ESPN’s all-time highest-rated week, thanks to two National Football League games, 11 college-football bowl games and 20 telecasts that rated 2.0 or higher. By comparison, the first week of 2007 had no NFL games, two bowls and only two telecasts over a 2.0.”

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