Even an onslaught of original reality shows couldn't help the broadcast networks stem the basic-cable ratings tide during July.
Boosted by a number of strong individual performances, cable programmers set an all-time ratings record for the July sweeps while trouncing the collective Nielsen performance of the broadcast networks.
Lifetime Television continued to head the industry's ratings charge, finishing first in primetime ratings race, while Nickelodeon — riding the record-setting numbers of its Rugrats
anniversary special — extended its dominance in total-day ratings.
But the biggest story for cable in July was its performance relative to the broadcast networks. Ad-supported cable networks averaged a 26.2 rating from July 2 through July 29, a 10-percent increase over last July and well above the 22.1 weighted total garnered by the seven major broadcast networks, according to a Turner Entertainment Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.
Broadcast-network ratings were off 11 percent from last year, when CBS breached the first real wave of reality programming with Survivor
and ABC's game-show sensation Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?
was coming up on its first anniversary.
"It's the strongest sweep that cable has ever had, as well as the weakest sweep for the broadcast networks," Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau president Joe Ostrow said. "It proves that cable's investment in programming has paid off and the new games that broadcast networks are playing are not working."
Ostrow said original cable programming's diversity — and broadcast TV's lack of it — is the reason behind the medium's triumph. While the broadcasters have launched a slew of new reality shows this summer, those offerings have failed to carry the ratings torch for the networks.
"The broadcast networks have generated a lot of publicity for their reality shows, but it's tough for one good hour to bring up ratings for the whole night," Lifetime senior vice president of research Tim Brooks said. "Also, the reality shows are beginning to lose their luster," Brooks added, "and with so many on both broadcast and cable, the genre is bound to be diluted."
Representatives from the National Association of Broadcasters, the broadcast industry's trade organization, would not return phone calls to offer a rebuttal. Broadcast-network officials also did not return calls.
Meanwhile, original fare from basic-cable networks has boosted cable viewership. Lifetime, on the strength of its original movies and new episodes of the popular series Any Day Now
and Strong Medicine, led the basic-cable pack in primetime ratings. The women's-targeted network averaged a 2.1 primetime rating.
Lifetime — which is also on top of the cable heap year-to-date with a 2.0 average — matched its best-ever Nielsen performance, tying its January 2001 primetime mark.
Nickelodeon, boosted by All Growed Up
— the 10th- anniversary special of its signature series Rugrats
— finished second, with a 1.8 average. That program notched a 7.2 household rating — the highest in the network's history — on July 21.
There was a three-way tie for third at 1.7 among TBS Superstation, Cartoon Network and USA Network.
Turner Network Television was sixth at a 1.6, followed by A&E Network and Discovery Channel at a 1.2 and TNN: The National Network and American Movie Classics, each with a 1.0.
Other impressive network performances include Travel Channel and Bravo, whose 0.4 ratings were up 33 percent from last year, and The Game Show channel, which averaged a 0.5 rating, up 25 percent from July 2000.
On a total-day basis, Nick continued its dominance, averaging a 1.5. Lifetime and Cartoon were tied for second at 1.3 over the 24-hour period.
TBS and TNT rounded out the top five at a 1.1 and an 0.9, respectively.
On the adult demo front, a pair of Turner networks ruled the roost. TBS was first among adults 18 through 49, averaging 968,000 viewers, while TNT reached 994,000 adults 25 through 54 on average during July.
In the news arena, the Chandra Levy story proved to be a ratings-grabber for the all-news networks, as both Fox News Channel and Cable News Network posted significant gains in the July ratings period. FNC won the month, averaging a 0.8 rating in primetime, a 136-percent jump in households from July 2000. CNN placed second with a 0.7 rating, up 44 percent from the same month last year.
MSNBC, CNN Headline News and CNBC posted more modest gains. MSNBC generated an average 0.4 rating (up 19 percent); Headline earned a 0.2 rating and (up 7 percent); and CNBC pulled a 0.4 rating (up 17 percent). CNN and FNC tied in the total-day category, each with a 0.4 rating. CNN averaged 294,000 households, topping FNC by 20,000 homes.
Mike Reynolds and Steve Donohue contributed to this story.