Even Jack Bauer couldn’t lift the broadcast networks out of the primetime ratings dungeon.
Despite the strong debuts for new seasons of Fox’s 24 and American Idol, television’s most-popular show, cable continued to widen its lead over the broadcast networks in January as part of a double-digit edge in viewership share for the 2006-07 TV season to date.
Disney Channel led cable’s primetime charge last month, as several cable networks posted record January ratings.
Going into the February sweeps, ad-supported cable networks have averaged a 54.4 share, up 1% over the 54.0 share they generated for the same span last season, according to Nielsen Media Research data. The industry is pacing well ahead of the 42.3 weighted average share of the current seven broadcast networks.
Collectively, the six broadcast networks’ share decreased 5% for the season to date, from the 44.5 aggregated during the corresponding period last season, which included UPN and The WB. Those networks merged into The CW last September; some of their former affiliates are now aligned with MyNetworkTV.
Factoring in the Spanish-language broadcast networks like Univision, Telemundo, Telefutura and Azteca America, previously measured separately under the Nielsen Hispanic Television Index, and the medium’s share improves to 47.8 — still well short of cable.
“It’s not even close anymore,” said Jack Wakshlag, Turner Broadcasting System’s chief research officer. “Even when you add the Hispanic networks, cable is still dominant.”
Even the sixth season of American Idol couldn’t tune up the broadcasters’ cumulative performance. The popular singing competition series, along with Fox’s serialized hit 24 — which have averaged 34 million viewers and 15 million viewers since their respective returns on Jan. 14 and Jan. 16 — couldn’t keep the six broadcast networks from an 11% share falloff to a 42.2 share from a 47.6 mark in the first month of 2006.
For its part, cable posted a 54 share in January, up 6% from a 51 share the prior year, according to Nielsen data.
The broadcast networks would have to come up with several shows on the level of American Idol to make a major dent into cable’s share lead, said Tim Brooks, executive vice president of research at Lifetime Entertainment Services. “It’s certainly possible, but it’ll be difficult for the broadcast networks [to surpass cable’s share],” he said.
The broadcasters have a different story to tell. The Television Bureau of Advertising, a broadcast-TV advocate, said the performance of individual shows means more to viewers and to advertisers than industry aggregates, as ratings for broadcast’s most- watched shows routinely dwarf cable’s best and brightest.
To illustrate his point, TVB vice president of communications Gary Belis said the top-rated primetime broadcast show for the week ended Jan. 28 was American Idol, with an 18.9 national household mark on Jan 24. That was almost six times higher than cable’s best, USA Network’s WWE Monday Night Raw, which pinned a 3.3 rating Jan. 22 (a 4.1 in USA’s coverage universe). He added that more than 90 of the top 100 rated shows each week typically air on the major broadcast networks.
“The advertisers buy by program, the viewers watch by program — they don’t tune their VCR into a particular network, they tune into a particular program,” Belis said. “That’s how the real world works.”
In January, Disney, led by the network’s record-setting original movie Jump In!, ranked first in primetime with a 2.3 household rating, one-tenth of a ratings point ahead of USA. TNT (1.7 rating), A&E Network, Fox News Channel, Lifetime and TBS (all tied at a 1.4); Hallmark Channel and Nick at Nite (a 1.2 apiece); and AMC, FX, and Cartoon Network (knotted with a 1.1) rounded out the top 10.
Several cable networks either set primetime viewership marks or posted significant gains during the month. Hallmark (1.2, up 9%), HGTV (1.0, up 11%) and Biography Channel (0.4, up 100%) all posted primetime ratings highs in January, according to Nielsen.
A&E Network, on the strength of its Jan. 10 launch of syndicated The Sopranos episodes, increased its January ratings by 56% to a 1.4 from a 0.9, while AMC rode the strong performance from the Jan. 20 showing of the Robert Redford classic western movie Jeremiah Johnson to a 22% gain to a 1.1 average.
Other networks registering double-digit growth include Discovery Channel and Court TV (11% to a 1.0); VH1 (33% to a 0.8); TLC (14% to a 0.8); SoapNet (50% to a 0.6); MSNBC (67% to a 0.5); History International (200% to a 0.3); Science Channel (0.3, up 50%); and Military Channel, The Golf Channel, G4, ESPN Classic and CNBC (100% to a 0.2).