On the surface, this year's third-quarter cable ratings look a lot like those from previous two quarters, with Lifetime Television once again leading the primetime race and Nickelodeon holding on to the total-day ratings title.
Of course, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks ensured that the July 2 to Sept. 30 period would be remembered like no other. One only has to look at September's ratings ledger to realize the effect the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon had on the viewing habits of cable subscribers.
Cable News Network led the way in ratings during primetime and was tied with Nickelodeon in total-day measurement during the month.
CNN averaged a 2.0 in primetime from Aug. 27 through Sept. 30, according to a Turner Entertainment Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. That's a 233 percent jump from a 0.6 in the corresponding period last year.
Topped by President Bush's Sept. 11 address to the nation, CNN's coverage of the attacks represented eight of the top 10 highest-rated shows during the month and seven of the top 10 for the quarter.
Other all-news networks also registered significant growth: For September, Fox News Channel was tied for eighth with a 1.5, up 200 percent from a 0.5.
MSNBC recorded a 175 percent leap to a 1.1 from a 0.4 to finish in a tie for 11th
place for the month, while CNN Headline News improved 150 percent to a 0.5, ending in a tie for 27th overall.
CNBC, also at a 0.5 rating, was flat for the month.
The news networks' terror-attack coverage also propelled CNN and FNC's primetime ratings into the top 10 rankings during the third quarter. With a 100 percent increase from the same period last year, CNN's 1.2 rating put it in eighth place for the quarter, while FNC's 1.1 rating was good for 10th place, up a whopping 120 percent increase over third-quarter 2000.
Several entertainment networks also managed to post impressive ratings performances during the third quarter. Lifetime's 2.1 primetime rating grew 17 percent over third quarter 2000 to easily beat out the 1.7 rating posted by second- place finishers TBS Superstation, USA Network, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, according to Nielsen.
Turner Network Television (1.5 rating), ESPN (1.3) Arts & Entertainment (1.2) and Discovery Channel (1.1) rounded out the top 10 spots.
Only Lifetime, CNN and FNC posted ratings gains from third quarter 2000. In fact, Nick, which remained flat, and Discovery, down 8 percent, were the only networks not to post double-digit declines.
A&E sustained the biggest hit, down 20 percent, followed by USA and Cartoon (down 15 percent apiece), ESPN (13 percent), TNT (12 percent) and TBS Superstation (11 percent).
Other networks showed gains. Hallmark Channel's rebranding effort paid substantial dividends during the quarter, leading the former Odyssey Network to a 0.5 primetime rating — a 67 percent jump over last year. The network's 0.6 September primetime rating was a record for the service.
Black Entertainment Television (up 20 percent to a 0.6), Travel Channel (up 33 percent to a 0.4) and Animal Planet, E! Entertainment, Food Network and Game Show network (all up 25 percent to a 0.5 rating) also posted strong performances during the quarter.
Lifetime senior vice president of research Tim Brooks said cable's ability to provide familiar and comforting programming during the national crisis helped spur ratings surges for a number of networks.
"Initially, when major news breaks, there's a flow of audience to the news networks to find out what's going on, but after the major events occur, then you tend to get entertainment networks coming back as a place where viewers can find a little solace," Brooks said.
On a 24-hour basis, Nickelodeon's 1.4 rating continued the network's six-year, consecutive-quarter rein in the top spot. Lifetime finished second with a 1.3 rating, while Cartoon Network (1.2), TBS (1.0) and TNT (0.8) rounded out the top five.
In September, Nickelodeon could manage only a tie with CNN on a 24-hour basis. CNN and Nick's 1.3 rating reflected a 333 percent surge and a 7 percent falloff, respectively.
Mike Reynolds and Steve Donohue contributed to the story.