Combined, the first-quarter-1999 primetime numbers of the
10 networks highlighted in this article add up to less than the total of the three
top-rated basic-cable networks. Each of them also posted higher percentage gains than the
rest, including top dogs USA Network, Turner Network Television and TBS Superstation.
How did they rack up high-double-digit -- and, in two
cases, triple-digit -- gains? In part by being rated near the lower end of the scale: When
you start out small, even one-tenth of a point can translate into a large percentage
But that's not the only reason. Each of these networks is
growing consistently, and each is still evolving. Some of them are reaping the results of
fourth-quarter changes in scheduling and programming, while others are in the midst of
sweeping change. Ownership changes that brought in new money helped in a couple of cases.
Whatever the cause, executives at the 10 networks said the
numbers for the second quarter were following the trend.
HOME & GARDEN TELEVISION
Burton Jablin, HGTV's senior vice president of programming
and production, attributed the network's consistent growth to a combination of factors.
"We've stayed the course in terms of philosophy: ideas, information and inspiration.
We call that the 'three I's.' We've stuck with it from the beginning. We just do what we
do and continue to do it over and over."
In the process, the network posted a 40 percent
year-to-year increase, moving to a 0.7 from a 0.5.
Despite the consistent philosophy, Jablin said, there have
been some changes along the way.
"Primetime is all field-based programming, no studio.
It's different in subject matter, content and style. Part of the ratings growth is because
we've gotten better and better at scheduling what viewers want when they want it, and the
look of the network keeps getting better," Jablin explained.
"We've learned that primetime needs to be more
lifestyle-oriented, more ideas not as heavy on detailed information. It's a little
heavy to expect people to go step through step how to build a deck."
Instead of a gardening show with details like "how to
feed your roses" -- typical weekend-afternoon fare -- HGTV offers Surprise
Gardener, where nonexpert host Susie Coelho and a team of landscapers sneak in and
overhaul disaster gardens while the owners are away.
"There is no one show that in a South Park kind
of way has made for our viewing increases," Jablin said. "We like it that way.
We like having strength across the board. We like attracting an audience here for
across-the-board programming, and not just a one-hit ratings wonder."
Ratings took a slight dip in February. "We certainly
noticed that in May, as well," Jablin added. "You can't help it. It takes
viewers away, no question. We will typically stay the course and ignore the sweeps. I
think that if we didn't, perhaps there'd be even more of an impact."
E! ENTERTAINMENT TELEVISION
Fran Shea, president of E!, attributed the network's 25
percent jump, to a 0.5 from a 0.4, to the move from acquisition programming to creating
100 percent original content for primetime.
"In primetime, we tried a number of different things
from acquired shows, and we found that our original programming did the best for us,"
Shea said, pointing out that E! already had a track record of producing original
programming through franchise shows Talk Soup and E! News Daily.
The primetime slate has all of the E! ingredients: gossip,
scandal, entertainment, fashion and celebrity.
The centerpiece is E! True Hollywood Story, which
was on three nights per week during the first quarter, and which is now up to four nights.
"Those nights are up 38 percent between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.," according to Shea. E!
True Hollywood Story premiered in 1996 as a special, and it gradually became a staple
for the network.
Two half-hour strip shows that launched last September also
added to the boost: Fashion Emergency and Mysteries & Scandals. Each
premieres new episodes on Mondays.
Shea said the network met her goal for the first quarter,
and it is building on that success. "The first quarter's always our best quarter. I
have seen terrific numbers indicating that we'll have a big second quarter," she
Meanwhile, she said, the demographics have been solid for
the past year: 18 to 49 with a solid 25-to-34 upscale core and an almost 50-50 split
male-female. "We're building on top and looking forward to six nights," Shea
THE HISTORY CHANNEL
History is the only one of the top 10 percentage gainers in
the first quarter to also be in the top half of networks when ranked by ratings.
The network ranked higher than any of its top 10
competitors in the first quarter of 1998, at a 0.6. And with 33 percent growth over last
year, it topped them all again, at a 0.8. History also leapfrogged over several other
networks to move up the ratings rankings.
"We had a very healthy jump, and we're a player
now," History senior vice president of programming Abbe Raven said. "The
challenge for any established network continues to be in viewership. I give more credit to
those who are more stabilized and continue to grow viewership."
By that measure, Raven would rather tout the network's 49
percent gain in households, to 439,000 from 294,000 at the same time last year.
History entered the first quarter of 1999 with momentum
from the previous year and a 0.7 in the fourth quarter. "We were continuing to build
certain series we launched in fall continued to grow. History Undercover on
Sunday nights, with Arthur Kent, has continued to build and perform very well."
Raven credited the Sunday lineup with some of the network's
primetime success. "We have become an alternative destination with regularly
scheduled documentaries on that night," she said, but in truth, it's the mix of
programming spread over several nights.
"We also find that people are coming to us week after
week for our miniseries," Raven added. "We consistently perform in those. We did
well with a number of specials, and we also have consistently done well with In Search
First-quarter documentaries Hell's Angels and San
Quentin now top the list as the network's highest-rated individual programs.
VH1's ratings improved 25 percent, to a 0.5 from a 0.4, but
that's not the whole story, senior vice president of programming and production Jeff
"More interesting for us, we're up 150 percent from
two years ago," he added. "That's even more dramatic. We've had growth in
primetime in about 11 of the past 12 quarters. For us, it's more than just year-to-year:
It's been ongoing, an incline for the past two to three years. It's been incremental for
us but consistent."
He pointed to gains that show the same absolute increase
even thought the percentage of improvement changes. "Three years ago, 0.2 to 0.3 was
a 50 percent increase, and then 0.3 to 0.4 was 33 percent. Our cumulative rating has grown
in three years from 35 million to 67 million in April."
Gaspin added, "You could increase your households by
100 percent if your distribution doubled. The trick is increasing your households and
Several core shows contribute to VH1's success -- Behind
the Music, Storytellers, Where Are They Now? and Before They Were
Rock Stars -- with special events like Divas Live adding to the network's draw.
Promotional gimmicks like "Bad Boys Week,"
"To Hell and Back Week" and "70s Week" play off VH1's strengths,
allowing the network to leverage its ever-increasing store of original programming.
Mega-events like Divas Live also bring in "a
ton of off-channel publicity" -- and, with it, Gaspin hopes, more primetime viewers.
THE WEATHER CHANNEL
The New Year's snowstorm of 1999 inconvenienced hundreds of
thousands of Northeastern residents, but it helped to get TWC's year off to a good start.
"There's an emerging discipline of winter storms, and
we hired a winter expert -- quite literally, the person who wrote the book on winter
storms -- who started Jan. 1. He got thrown straight into the fire -- or the ice, in this
case," said Patrick Scott, TWC's executive vice president and general manager,
programming, operations and distribution.
Dubbed "First Strike '99" -- you know it's
important when it gets a name and a logo -- the Jan. 2 storm brought the network its
largest average single-day audience: a 1.29 rating, with 932,000 households tuned in. At
its peak, nearly 2 million households were looking for guidance from TWC.
Overall, first-quarter ratings over the previous year were
up 33 percent, to a 0.4 from a 0.3.
The biggest trick for Scott and his colleagues is growing
ratings when the weather isn't dramatic.
"Weather events do drive ratings, obviously, but what
we are trying to do is to drive ratings by producing a major television event, better
television," he said. "When you look at our chart, you get a base level, then
you get those massive spikes. It has some effect on the overall average, but you have to
do a good job on the whole to get the ratings for the whole quarter up, and not just rely
on an act of God. That's not a reliable way of doing it."
To that end, TWC is more than doubling its previous level
of live coverage and employing more video about how weather affects viewers' lives.
The viewing world seems to be divided into people who check
TWC on a need-to-know basis and those who watch it for more than a few minutes at a time.
"That [second] category of people is actually
surprisingly large, and obviously, they are the backbone. The other extraordinary thing
about the audience is that we are more or less on the bell curve," Scott explained.
"We do not have any major demographic target. Our target is the bell curve."
The odds are that any quarter that starts with your top
talent on the cover of People magazine's "25 Most Intriguing People of the
Year" issue is going to be a good one.
There, pictured between images of talk-show icon Oprah
Winfrey and teen idol Leonardo, was Emeril, the one-name centerpiece chef of the
talent-laden network and the man credited with much of its appeal.
"As popular as he is, I don't think he's anywhere near
as popular as he can be. The sky's the limit," Food president Eric Ober said, calling
his restaurateur star "the Julia Child of this era."
Emeril Live currentlyairs at 9 p.m., but it
will move up one hour when a new programming slate debuts this summer.
Ober attributed the network's 33 percent growth
year-to-year, to a 0.4 from a 0.3, to a combination of Emeril's increasing popularity, the
rising subscriber base since E.W. Scripps purchased the network and the success of other
Food hosts like Bobby Flay and Sara Moulton.
A broadcast-network veteran who is used to double-digit
ratings, Ober was not deluding himself about the numbers. "Obviously, in cable, if
you have a low base, 50 percent growth sounds great," he said.
The lineup that brought ratings success in the fourth and
first quarters will change dramatically this summer. Nine new series will be field-based,
and the emphasis in the evening will move more toward lifestyle shows, including two live
cooking hours with Moulton.
"The good thing is that we have a category where the
term 'food' is broad enough to be very widely appealing," he added. "Now, we
have to make the programming as widely appealing as the category. Until now, we have been
Ober compared the changes at Food to those at Courtroom
Television Network: "The name of the game here is how to broaden the base where your
niche is. You have some networks that seem to be niching down and some that want to go
deeper. I think what Court TV's doing and what we're doing is niching broader."
COURTROOM TELEVISION NETWORK
Court TV president and CEO Henry S. Schleiff couldn't
possibly sound more enthusiastic about his network and its 100 percent first-quarter
increase, to a 0.2 from a 0.1.
"In a nutshell, it was simply the recognition of the
demand for stories about crime and justice -- the audience's almost insatiable interest in
the genre of crime and justice -- and Court TV's recognition of that interest and ability
to address it," he said. "What you're seeing in the marketplace is huge demand
for stories with this as a central theme."
Court TV launched a new primetime schedule in January, with
reality-based shows anchored by syndicated episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street,
the acclaimed (and recently canceled by NBC) drama with a relatively small but almost
Airing twice nightly, Homicide has become "kind
of the ultimate marketing tool in handing off an audience to the strip right after
it," Schleiff said.
Court Stories -- the documentary series at the center
of the network's primetime schedule -- follows Homicide at 10 p.m.
Schleiff was realistic about the actual rate of growth.
"A lot of our growth, particularly as a brand, we're talking tenths of a rating
point. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that it's still not a large portion of the
Still, he added, "I am delighted with our
extraordinary growth in ratings and key demos, but I am even more proud that we've been
able to do it while staying within the broad parameters of Court TV's mission statement.
We haven't done something that's out of our bounds. We're stretching the envelope, but
that's what we need to do."
Hot daytime trials and proceedings afford the network the
chance to promote its primetime shows to a key audience.
Animal Planet, the second of the Discovery Communications
Inc. channels in the top 10 percentage gainers, went up 25 percent, to a 0.5 from a 0.4.
"I think what you're seeing is the pre-emergence of
the brand. People get what the concept of the network is. They get what we're trying to
do," senior vice president and general manager Clark Bunting explained.
"The second half of that is the programming
investment," he added. "We have a couple of franchises -- Crocodile Hunter,
Emergency Vets, Judge Wapner's Animal Court. Those are the building blocks
that bring people in, then we spend more money to tell people we're there."
Animal Planet's first quarter also benefited from
counterprogramming the broadcast sweeps with its "animal-sports" franchise --
the Westminster Dog Show and Animal Planet National Dog Championships.
"Traditionally, we have very good first
quarters," Bunting said. "We zig while the broadcast networks zag. We're not up
against sweeps. It's a great time to showcase your new programming and your
As for the dog shows, Bunting said, the network's trick has
been to apply "Olympics-style coverage. It's not just a two-camera shoot with a
commentator: It's up close and personal. There's much more of a feeling of importance, a
sense of competition."
More money to spend on marketing and programming; increased
distribution; and a new schedule that debuted in the fall and caught on the first quarter
all contributed to Travel's 50 percent increase to a 0.3 in the first quarter of 1999 from
a 0.2 in 1998, according to senior vice president and general manager Jay Feldman.
Clearly, some of the increase can be attributed to
"the shift in ownership and, frankly, the application of massive resources to making
Travel Channel a Discovery-quality network," Feldman added. DCI bought Travel in
December 1997, and Feldman was the first executive hired.
Feldman offered Conde Nast Traveler Presents Amazing
Destinations -- with its one-hour episodes in exotic locations -- as an example of
"One of the things that really made a difference there
was being able to acquire and put together new programs of the quality that we never could
without Discovery ownership," he said.
He wouldn't disclose the network's programming budget,
saying only that it more than doubled from the first quarter of 1998 to the first quarter
of 1999. "But that's going to be a big number because we're starting from a fairly
low number," he added.
Travel is using that money to journey in different
directions. "I think one of the reasons why we are starting to do better is that we
are reinventing travel programming," Feldman said. "In the past, it was pretty
straightforward, [but] that's not very interesting programming. We're looking for
story-driven programming that has strong personalities telling the stories."
And they have to be told for an American audience, he
added. "It is an American travel channel. There's so much travel programming produced
in England that I could fill all of my hours from England, but it's not done the way that
Americans travel. We need to help the audience to experience the world through our own
"Beach Week" -- carefully timed not to coincide
with sister network Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" -- provided the network's
highest ratings and largest audience in the first quarter.
"As my colleague said, 'Congratulations, and now do it
again.' That's the fun, and that's the challenge," Feldman said.
FOX NEWS CHANNEL
FNC doubled its ratings year-to-year, jumping to a 0.6 from
a 0.3. Just as important, the network nearly tripled its households, to 223,000 from
79,000 in the first quarter of 1998.
FNC senior vice president Chet Collier was hard-pressed to
cite one reason for the newest news network's ratings success. Instead, he offered a
handful, ranging from "great" marketing and promotion; to coverage of special
events, like President Clinton's impeachment trial; to the attraction of the network's
"It does take time," he said. "It does with
any new product that's introduced to people. We had to prove to people that you could
depend on us, that we were reliable and that we really meant what we said."
The leading draw is Bill O'Reilly's The O'Reilly Factor,
with Hannity & Colmes running a close second. And pushing Special Report
with Brit Hume back to 6 p.m. to make way for Paula Zahn and The Fox Report at
7 p.m. strengthened both time slots, according to Collier.
"When you think of cable, prime is not traditional
prime," he said. "Prime begins at six."
Collier also credited FNC's promise to be fair and balanced
with helping it to stand out at a time when he says studies show a high number of people
complaining that the news is balanced to the left.
"There's an opportunity there if people feel that way
about the news, if that's their perception," he added.
What of the argument that FNC actually has a conservative
bent? "Our competitors have put that spin out, being unhappy with the growth we've
shown," he said. "It's spin. You're talking to a 70-year-old liberal."