USA Network donned cable's viewer and key demo diadems in primetime for a sixth consecutive year, but there were a number of other winners in the medium's top ranks during 2011.
Among cable's top 25, History (21%), FX (20%) and MTV (21%) all scored audience advances of more than 20%, with similarly robust double-digit gains -- History was ahead 17%, FX 21% and MTV 22% -- among Madison Avenue's preferred 18-to-49 set.
Conversely, Nick at Nite, TBS and Fox News Channel sustained the most audience erosion among cable's upper echelon, with the "very funny" network, Lifetime and Nick at Nite taking double-digit demo hits.
USA Network's combination of original series, including Burn Notice, Royal Pains, Covert Affairs and Suits, WWE fare and off-network shows once again proved way too much for the rest of cable. However, the "characters welcome" service was essentially flat among viewers with 3.165 million on average, off from 3.166 million in 2010, according to Nielsen data for the period Dec. 27, 2010 through Dec. 25, 2011.
Disney Channel was second, up 3% to 2.65 million viewers from 2.58 million, while ESPN ranked third despite a 2% drop to 2.34 million from 2.40 million. The worldwide leader saw cable's top franchise, Monday Night Football, suffer a 9.5% decline in viewership during its just-completed 2011 NFL slate.
Drama proponent TNT slipped 1% to 2.23 million from 2.26 million viewers. History, continuing the momentum delivered by PawnStars, American Pickers and Swamp People, grew an impressive 21% to 1.99 million from 1.65 million watchers to finish fifth.
Fox News remained well ahead in the news sector, even though it lost 7% of its viewership to 1.88 million from 2.03 million in 2010. TBS, which has picked up some traction with its Tuesday-Thursday night stacking of The Big Bang Theory, shed 10% of its audience to 1.61 million watchers from 1.81 million. A&E was eighth with a 7% advance to 1.56 million from 1.47 million, ahead of FX, which scored a 20% jump to 1.53 million from 1.27 million, buoyed by original biker skein Sons of Anarchy and neo-gothic supernatural series American Horror Story, which just completed its rookie run. ABC Family rounded out the top 10 by edging up 1% to 1.46 million watchers from 1.44 million in 2010.
Most of the Nielsen news was positive among cable's second 10, but No. 11 Nick at Nite fell 22% to 1.34 million viewers on average, keeping it just above Syfy, which improved 11% to 1.33 million. Discovery posted a 2% increase to 1.29 million, with Adult Swim (10% amelioration to 1.24 million) and HGTV (receding 2% to 1.20 million, ranking 14th and 15th, respectively.
MTV, riding the wave of its Jersey Shore franchise, was next at 1.19 million watchers, growing 21% overall with its GTLers and their fans. AMC moved ahead 8% overall to a 1.18 million average audience, fueled by zombie series The Walking Dead. Food Network packed on 3% more viewers to 1.17 million. Erstwhile, cable leader Lifetime was down 5% to 1.11 million watchers to finish 19th, while Tru TV decreased 3% to 1.09 million.
Rounding out the top 25: TLC, off 3% to 1.08 million; Comedy Central, ahead 3% to just over 1 million on average; Bravo, up 5% to 926,000; Spike, down 2% to 904,000; and Nick. Jr., a 10% gain to 858,000 watchers.
All told among the top 25, basic cable counted 14 gainers and 10 losers, while USA remained essentially flat in its own exalted sphere.
USA also set the pace among the 18-to-49 crowd, averaging 1.21 million of those watchers, down 3% from 1.25 milion in 2010. ESPN, despite a 4% slide to 1.10 million from 1.15 million, was second. Turner teammates TNT -- off 3% to 950,000 -- and TBS -- an 11% decrease to 898,000 -- were next.
History completed the first five, scoring the aforementioned 17% advance to 892,000, while FX (21% to 855,000) and MTV (22% to 770,000) followed immediately thereafter.
Rounding out the top 10 with the demo: A&E was ahead 8% to 764,000 of those watchers; Discovery inched up 1% to 680,000; and ABC Family recorded a 3% uptick to 678,000.
Joining the top four on the 18-to-49 downside were seven other members of cable's top 25 -- Disney (-5%), TLC (-4%), Lifetime (-10%), Spike (-7%). HGTV (-4%), Nick at Nite (-10%) and E! (-4%).
In addition to the previously delineated gainers in the fifth to 10th spots, eight other top 25 networks finished 2011 in positive 18-to-49 territory: Comedy Central (5%), Bravo (7%), Food (1%), Syfy (6%), Adult Swim (5%), TruTV (1%), AMC (10%) and BET (6%).
Per usual, sports -- led by cable's all-time, most-watched telecast, the Auburn-Oregon BCS Championship Game that tackled 27.4 million viewers -- ruled the ratings roost, capturing the first baker's dozen slots, 29 out of the top 30 and 35 of the most-watched 50.
The 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, which drew a franchise-best 13.4 million viewers on a live+7-day basis, broke the athletic allegiance, finishing 14th for the year. Coverage of President Obama's speech announcing the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Disney Channel's Phineas and Ferb telefilm, 11 episodes of Jersey Shore and an installment of TNT's Rizzoli & Isles also managed to crack cable's top 50 telecasts of 2011.