Facing tough competition from broadcast and Who Wants to be a Millionaire, cable' s broad-based networks saw their ratings drop in the first quarter.
In contrast, several narrower niche services enjoyed record numbers. In fact, Discovery Channel' s woolly mammoth ruled.
Most of the top five basic-cable networks saw their primetime ratings decline this January through March compared with a year ago. USA Network, for example, kept its No. 1 crown with a 2.4 rating, but that number represents an 8 percent dip, according to Turner Entertainment Research from Nielsen Media Research data.
After USA in primetime were TBS Superstation and Nickelodeon, each with a 1.8 rating and each down 10 percent. They were followed by Lifetime Television, which did a 1.7 rating, flat compared with a year ago, making it one of the few top-five networks not to lose ground.
In fact, Lifetime outperformed Turner Network Television, which saw its wrestling and basketball ratings nosedive in the first quarter. As a result, TNT' s primetime viewership dropped a whopping 27 percent, to a 1.6 rating.
TNT slid down to the No. 5 position for cable in primetime, tied with sister service Cartoon Network, which was up 7 percent.
In contrast to the broad general-entertainment networks, a number of more targeted cable networks did well.
For example, A & E Network, The History Channel and Bravo, The Film and Arts Network all boasted that this first quarter represented their highest-rated quarters ever. And in the biggest triumph for a targeted network, Discovery had basic-cable' s highest-rated program in the first quarter: Its Raising the Mammoth garnered a mammoth 7.8 rating March 12.
"The broadcast networks are having a relatively good season," said Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research for Lifetime. "And the more broad a cable network is, like TNT and USA, the more they' ve gotten hurt by this. Niche networks survive better when broadcast does well. What sets Lifetime apart is that it' s the only adult niche network in the top five cable networks."
In primetime this first quarter, basic cable overall was up 2 percent compared with a year ago, to a 25.6 rating. That' s less growth than cable has seen in past quarters. The seven broadcast networks, including Pax TV, were up 1 percent to a 37.2.
Cable' s lackluster performance followed a February sweep period in which basic cable' s ratings rose just 1 percent. Broadcast enjoyed an especially strong February sweep, which boosted its numbers.
"It was a challenging first quarter," said Bob Sieber, vice president of audience development for Turner Broadcasting System Inc. "The growth was modest across our industry. Millionaire cost us a couple of percent of growth. Without it, we might have seen growth of 4 percent, rather than 2 percent."
TNT suffered because World Championship Wrestling was down 37 percent in the first quarter compared with a year ago, and primetime National Basketball Association games were off 39 percent, according to Sieber.
But he questioned the assertion that most niche cable networks did well, saying, "It' s a mixed story-it' s not quite that straightforward."
CBS Television Network executive vice president of research and planning David Poltrack said cable has grown its viewership during the past few years through a combination of the launch of new channels, increasing its penetration and offering better programming. But now, the older, top cable networks, like USA and TNT, are fully penetrated in terms of distribution.
"So they have become more and more dependent on programming-driven ratings gains, and they are more challenged by newer cable networks that are still adding penetration," Poltrack said.
He added that cable has been hurt this year because a large portion of the viewers Millionaire is drawing to ABC are coming from cable, and not from other broadcast networks.
USA in the first quarter had two original movies, The Mary Kay Letourneau Story and Cabin by the Lake, that did a 5.6 and 5.4, respectively, making them the highest-rated original movies on basic cable year to date. The World Wrestling Federation was up to a 6.3 average rating in the first quarter.
"And our original series are doing well on Sunday," said Ray Giacopelli, USA Cable' s vice president of research.
USA is in danger of losing its WWF franchise. But even factoring out wrestling in the first quarter, USA would still have been No. 1 in primetime, with a 2.0 versus a 2.4, according to Giacopelli.
"No, we don't want to lose wrestling," he said, "but neither is it a death knell."
Brooks said Lifetime' s primetime off-network movies continue to do well and seem to be bulletproof day in and day out, since viewers know that if they tune to the network, they' ll get a film with a women' s perspective and theme.
"Because of that, we' ve developed a loyalty among our viewers," he added. "We hardly have to advertise our movies."
Lifetime' s original dramatic series, Any Day Now, is still building audience-up 29 percent to a 1.8 rating-he added.
The big primetime gainers in the first quarter were: Courtroom Television Network, up 200 percent to a 0.6; Bravo, up 50 percent to a 0.3; MTV: Music Television, up 29 percent to a 0.9; and Sci Fi Channel, up 29 percent to a 0.9.
The big losers in the first quarter, apart from TNT, were: CNBC, down 43 percent to a 0.4; The Nashville Network, down 30 percent to a 0.7; and WGN, down 30 percent to a 0.7.
WGN has seen its primetime ratings decline since it stopped airing programming from The WB Television Network this fall, replacing it with theatricals.
Looking to jump-start its programming, WGN last week hired longtime USA veteran Neil Hoffman as vice president of programming. Hoffman recently left USA, where he most recently was senior vice president of programming.
Hoffman' s mandate at WGN is to develop innovative strategies for purchasing and scheduling programming on the superstation.
Along with WGN, the all-news networks had a tough first quarter. Cable News Network, even with its presidential-primary debates, was down 20 percent in primetime to a 0.8 and down 33 percent in total day to a 0.4.
MSNBC was flat in primetime at a 0.4, but it was behind Fox News Channel in terms of both primetime ratings and households. FNC had a 0.5 rating, down 17 percent from a year ago, and 229,000 homes.
Sieber said CNN suffered because this first quarter was much quieter in terms of breaking news than a year ago, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal helped to boost ratings.
Primetime Trends Report, 1Q' 00 vs. 1Q' 99
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Source: Turner Entertainment Research from Nielsen Media Research data