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This summer was like training camp for cable and some of its biggest networks. They built up lots of momentum, setting the stage to once again beat broadcast when the new TV season kicks off this fall.

Basic cable ended the summer as the gold-medal winner in the primetime ratings versus broadcast, fending off damage from NBC’s coverage of the Summer Olympics and boosted by original hits like USA Network’s The 4400 and FX’s Rescue Me.

All of this should pave the way for another strong showing by cable this fall.

“Last year was the first regular season, September to May, when cable actually drew more viewers than broadcast,” said Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television’s executive vice president of research. “The first time it was a narrow gap, obviously. With this kind of summer under its belt, I would expect that cable would widen its gain.”

Even with the Games in Athens airing in primetime on NBC — and after Fox trumpeted all of its new hot-weather programming as part of a year-round strategy — broadcast was trounced. Cable garnered an all-time high 57.0 household share in primetime, up 4% versus last summer, while the seven broadcast networks posted an all-time low 36.3 share, down 2%, according to a Turner Broadcasting System Inc. analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

A JUGGERNAUT

“The cable-growth juggernaut is so strong that it seems to withstand just about everything,” Brooks said. “You can huff and puff and blow in its face so much that it kind of slows down its rate of speed, but it never quite stops.”

It’s really not surprising that NBC’s nightly Olympics coverage couldn’t lift all of broadcast enough to really strike a big blow at cable, according to Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner.

“One network isn’t going to be able to produce, or create, enough to change this tide,” he said. “Two networks aren’t going to be enough.”

If you slice and dice the numbers by looking at primetime ratings rather than share, it’s still not a pretty picture for broadcast, although the Games did allow broadcast to chalk up some plus signs.

“For all of the talk by broadcasters about 24/7 programming and 12-months-a-year premieres, and retaking the summer, it just didn’t work out that way,” Brooks said. “Cable is up 6% [in primetime ratings] for the summer, that’s June, July and August. Broadcast is up 1% with an Olympics. If you back the Olympics out, they’re down 9%.”

Even big-event programming on broadcast doesn’t dramatically affect cable anymore.

“The pattern in the past is whenever broadcast has something that does well — like the Winter Olympics or nights when it has a big event — it slows cable’s growth down, but it very rarely, if ever, turns cable negative,” Brooks said.

Compared to the prior month, Lifetime’s primetime ratings actually grew during the Olympics, when it counter-programmed by airing back-to-back movies at night, according to Brooks. In fact, since May Lifetime’s primetime ratings have increased each month, gaining momentum after a tough first half of the year.

NET GAINS FOR MANY

A wide swath of individual cable outlets registered growth this summer.

“It was a terrific summer for cable, even with the Olympics thrown into the equation,” said Betsy Frank, MTV Networks’ executive vice president of research and planning. “USA benefited from The 4400 and FX with Rescue Me. Comedy Central had a fantastic summer … a diversity of cable networks brought in viewers and were able to post increases.”

USA and Turner Network Television shared the No. 1 spot in the primetime ratings this summer, each scoring a 2.1 rating, according to Nielsen data provided by the ABC Cable Networks Group. USA was up a sizable 31% in household ratings versus last summer, when it only registered a 1.6. TNT was flat compared with last summer.

Among individual cable networks, in the summer primetime-ratings derby Disney Channel ranked third in primetime, with 1.9 rating, the same as last summer. Next came Lifetime, Cartoon Network and Nick at Nite, tied at 1.6 apiece. That number represents an 11% drop for Lifetime compared with a year ago, while Cartoon was flat. Numbers for Nick at Nite weren’t broken out separately last summer, so there isn’t any data to make a year-to-year comparison.

TBS scored a 1.5 primetime rating this summer, up 7% from the prior-year period, while Fox News Channel grew 8% to a 1.4. ESPN, ahead 9%, and Turner South, which wasn’t ranked in the previous year, both scored a 1.2 in primetime this summer. FX, up 22%, and Sci Fi, Channel, ahead 10%, followed as both finished with a 1.1.

DEMO DELIVERY

Many of the larger cable outlets are up in viewership, noted Wakshlag.

“The notion that all the growth is coming from small niche networks doesn’t seem to be so,” he said. “Cable-network programming, especially from the top-half networks, is getting stronger.”

TBS and TNT performed well this summer in key demographics. For example, TBS saw double-digit growth in primetime compared with last summer with adults 18 to 34, 18 to 49 and 25 to 54, with the addition of Sex and the City and the reality series Outback Jack. In addition, TBS was No. 1 in primetime for adults 18 to 34, the network’s best summer performance ever in that demographic.

“There were nights when Sex and the City was the No. 1 program on television in women 18 to 34 and 18 to 49,” Wakshlag said.

TNT ranked as the No. 1 network among adults 18 to 49 for the second consecutive summer, and adults 25 to 54 for the fourth consecutive summer.

BROADCAST’S FALL

As for the future, Brooks said: “What you’re going to see next is even broadcast sweep periods starting to fall to cable, too. It’s like one step after another.”

With cable introducing shows throughout year, audiences are no longer predisposed to watch broadcast after Labor Day, according to Frank.

“There is no such thing as, 'OK, it’s fall, it’s time to watch broadcast television,’ ” she said. “Viewers have learned that there’s compelling programming that appeals to them throughout the day and through the year, and that includes the time that is traditionally considered the new fall season.”

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