Blame Michael Phelps, but the summer didn't go quite so swimmingly for cable.
Up against NBC's deluge of Beijing Summer Olympics coverage, ad-supported cable saw its primetime household share drop 3% this summer to a 60.8 from last year's 63.0, which had been a record high, according to a Turner Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data through Aug. 24.
In turn, broadcast enjoyed a tidy gain this year, up 9% to a 30.2 share from a 27.6 last summer, according to Turner. NBC's primetime household share was a 10.7, up 57% from last summer's 6.8.
It marks the first time since at least 2002 that cable has lost primetime share in a summer, or that broadcast has gained such share during that period.
“The Michael Phelps phenomenon helped [broadcast] a great deal,” TV historian Tim Brooks said. “A lot of us thought that this Olympics would probably be flat or down somewhat, when in fact it was up because of that.”
During their 16 days, the Olympics — capped by Phelps winning eight gold medals for swimming events — reached 211 million people, viewed by more people than any other event in U.S. TV history, according to Nielsen data provided by NBC Universal.
And NBCU's USA Network gets the gold medal as the No. 1-rated cable network in primetime this summer, averaging 3 million viewers.
Broadcast got a double-barreled viewership boost this summer: It not only saw a sizeable lift from primetime Olympic coverage, it also got some steam from the National Basketball Association finals, a high-rated series on ABC that pitted the Boston Celtics against the Los Angeles Lakers.
But Brooks and Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting System, preferred to view cable's dip in share as a glass half full rather than half empty. Brooks, for instance, noted that cable's summer household share in primetime was still double that of broadcast.
Despite the Olympics, both he and Wakshlag maintained that cable's combined primetime ratings held up pretty well, basically flat. Ad-supported cable was down a smidgen, slipping 1% to a 34.4 from a 34.8 in household ratings last summer, according to Turner. Broadcast's household ratings averaged a 17.1, up 12% from last summer's 15.3.
“You look at the ratings, it's flat [for cable], despite the fact that you have much stronger sports competition on broadcast networks,” Wakshlag said.
Turner did an analysis of where NBC's Olympics viewership gains came from, and concluded that 40% of the growth was due to more viewers coming to their TV sets.
“Broadcast is up this summer, partly because of the Olympics, and partly because the Olympics is bringing in more viewers,” Wakshlag said. “In a normal season or a normal summer, that wouldn't be there.”
Brooks believes that the HDTV boom and sales of state-of-the art TV sets also helped fuel NBC's Olympic-ratings juggernaut.
“A lot of big-screen TV sets are flying out of the stores now,” he said. “In high definition, this really looked spectacular. So it was an event from that point of view.”
Since the last Summer Olympics and presidential election in 2004, cable has hit record audience delivery, with almost 6 million more viewers in that four-year period, averaging 50.8 million in primetime, according to Turner. But that represents a gain of only 324,000 over last summer.
The Big Four broadcast networks this summer changed their primetime programming mix, bringing in more reality programming, which has done better in the ratings for them than scripted fare, according to Wakshlag.
“Their scripted content, whether it be sitcoms or dramas, has not performed well in the summer as opposed to cable, where it has,” he said.
Like last summer, scripted dramas continued to draw viewers to cable.
In fact, this summer Turner networks lay claim to the most-viewed drama and sitcom. TNT's The Closer, in its fourth season, is the No. 1-rated ad-supported cable series of all time, averaging 7.2 million viewers this summer, down 2% versus its prior season, according to Turner.
TBS's Tyler Perry's House of Payne is ad-supported cable's No. 1 original sitcom, averaging 1.4 million adults 18 to 49.
USA Network took honors for launching the top-rated original cable series of the summer, In Plain Sight, which was averaging 4.5million viewers, Turner said.
While that show has fairly well, Brooks said that cable didn't have any blockbuster breakout hits this summer.
For individual cable networks this summer, USA was No. 1 in primetime household ratings, up 5% to a 2.3 from a 2.2, according to a Disney ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen data through Aug. 24.
Some of USA's scripted shows posted nice gains this summer. Burn Notice was up 21% in total viewers from last season, with 4.6 million, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent saw a whopping 93% jump, to 4.2 million, according to Turner.
Disney Channel, without the boost it got from high-rated High School Musical 2 last summer, ranked second in the primetime household ratings, down 21% to a 1.9 rating from a 2.4. TNT came in third with a 1.8, dipping 10% from last summer's 2.0.
Nick at Nite, with the help of comedian George Lopez, shot up to fourth place in the primetime household ratings with a 1.5, a 25% increase from last summer's 1.2.
Much of Nick at Nite's gain can be attributed to its addition of the off-network George Lopez sitcom to its program roster last fall, according to Pete Danielsen, executive vice president of Nickelodeon programming.
“The momentum that we are currently enjoying really started with the launch of George Lopez and Home Improvement,” Danielsen said. “Last fall we introduced those two new shows and we also repackaged the network, and we really created an environment for those two shows on Nick at Nite. Basically they became new shows for a lot of people.”
On Nick at Nite, George Lopez is drawing an audience of kids watching with their parents.
“We hear both anecdotally and through serious research done by our company that George Lopez's show has actually risen to the top of all the charts of kids' favorite shows,” Danielsen said. “Kids love George Lopez.”
In the ratings, Nick at Nite was followed by ESPN and Fox News Channel, which each garnered a 1.4 primetime rating, up 8% from a 1.3 last summer. Next ranked were Lifetime Television and TBS, which each had a 1.3 rating. Lifetime was down 7%, while TBS was flat.
This summer, cable has overtaken broadcast in at least one front: news. Since summer 2004 news-viewing share has shifted to cable, according to Turner. This summer cable had 58% of news viewing, versus 52% in 2004. Broadcast's share was 42%, down from 48% four years ago.
This week, cable is launching a raft of original shows, with TNT debuting Raising the Bar and FX premiering Sons of Anarchy, as well as the final season of The Shield.
But broadcast doesn't have much cooking for the new season.
“The broadcast crop coming in the fall is the smallest in 30 years, I think,” Brooks said.