Last week's release of the summer Nielsen Media Research
audience ratings sparked another round of lively debates about the impact basic cable has
made on broadcast-network-audience erosion.
According to Nielsen data provided by Turner Broadcasting
System Inc., basic cable -- which includes both ad-supported and non-ad-supported networks
-- scored an aggregate rating of 25.1 for primetime households for the period from May 31
through Aug. 29, a 7 percent increase from the same period last year.
In terms of household delivery, basic cable registered
24,959,000 for the summer of 1999 versus 23,008,000 homes in 1998, up 8 percent.
In contrast, the top four broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS,
NBC and Fox -- collectively garnered a 22.3 primetime-household rating for the summer of
1999, a 4 percent dip from the 23.2 they scored last year.
In household delivery, the top four broadcast networks
delivered 22,131,000 homes versus 22,750,000 last year, down 3 percent.
According to those in the cable industry, these results are
not just attributable to the weakness of broadcast television, but they are also in large
part a validation of the original-programming initiatives by the cable networks.
"Improved programming is driving this. All basic-cable
networks accepted risk by putting on new, original programming," TBS vice president
of audience development Bob Sieber said.
To that end, Sieber pointed to some programming successes
at his own company. TBS Superstation unveiled original movies for the first time, and two
of the three -- First Daughter and Silent Predators --were two of
the summer's top-five-rated movies on basic cable.
First Daughter, which premiered Aug. 15, scored a 6.9
rating and 12 share, and it was basic cable's highest-rated movie year-to-date. Silent
Predators debuted June 13 with a 4.9 rating.
"In broadcast, the type of programming is the same as
it was 10 years ago," USA Networks Inc. senior vice president of research Tim Brooks
said. "On primetime cable now, on the other hand, versus 10 years ago, there is no
USA Network's World Wrestling Federation shows had a
stranglehold on the top 10 basic-cable program rankings for the summer.
"Back then, the good reruns went to the
station-syndication market," Brooks added. "The off-network stuff that cable has
now is high-profile, newer stuff like The X-Files and Walker, Texas Ranger.
You also have big-budget originals like La FemmeNikita on top of
Members of the broadcast-television community begged to
differ on cable's success.
"The cable industry loves to put out these collective
statistics with basic-cable figures that include the smallest and the most regional
networks, as well as the major measured ones," CBS executive vice president of
research and planning David Poltrack said.
"It's the top 10 that account for approximately
two-thirds of all ad dollars," he added. "For our purposes, we only consider
these people to be our competitors, and they have not increased their audience. All of the
increases were concentrated in the others."
Poltrack posited the viewpoint that smaller, more
niche-oriented cable networks aren't cannibalizing the major broadcast networks, but
rather, that they are taking dollars away from other vehicles, such as magazines.
Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau vice president of
research Jon Sims disagreed with Poltrack. "The success of cable has been about
growth across the spectrum of big and small, old and new networks. To say big ones are
down or flat -- we don't see that at all," he said.
Looking at the top 10, the results were actually mixed.
In primetime, the top basic-cable network, USA, was flat at
2.4, while TBS and Nickelodeon both decreased, from 1.9 to 1.8 and 2.2 to 1.8,
respectively. TNT went from 1.9 to 2.0.
There were several success stories within the top 10,
though, as Turner's Cartoon Network and Viacom Inc.'s MTV: Music Television surged from
1.6 to 1.8 and 0.9 to 1.1, respectively.
MTV's long-running véritéseries, The Real
World, pulled out of its ratings doldrums from the past few years on the strength of
its new cast in Hawaii. The show featured episodes where cast members were walking around
the house naked and one of the young women almost died of alcohol poisoning.
Bob Igiel, president of broadcast at The Media Edge, for
one, was tired of the perennial hue and cry between broadcast and cable about audience
erosion. "This is old news that the viewer has options and they're looking at those
options," he said.
Igiel went on to say that the larger networks -- whether
they are broadcast networks or the entrenched cable networks -- should be concerned about
the upstart networks, and they should focus their efforts less on arguing the issue of
audience erosion and more on producing compelling, original programming.
Others also disagreed with Poltrack's assertion that only
the top 10 cable networks compete with the likes of CBS.
"Television budgets are absolutely, positively chasing
audiences beyond the top 10 cable networks. I would put the number of cable networks that
would be legitimate candidates for advertising dollars to at least 30," said Rich
Hamilton, CEO of Zenith Media Services in New York, a leading Madison Avenue media-buying
Second-tier nets that made noise over the summer included
USA's Sci Fi Channel, which grew its primetime audience by nearly 30 percent. Fox News
Channel, which weighed in on the JFK Jr. tragedy, benefited in primetime by nearly 70
percent. And Courtroom Television Network, with its nightly Crime Stories series,
also scored big, quadrupling its numbers for the summer.
On the strength of a strong August, The History Channel
also ratcheted up its primetime-audience levels by around 33 percent.
August results for basic cable vis-à-vis the four major
broadcast networks were comparable with summer ratings, as the CAB released Nielsen data
that showed basic cable scoring a 24.2/44.8 household rating/share for primetime versus
the four broadcast networks' 23.3/43.2.
Igiel cited ABC's recent Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? as
a prime example of a cost-effective way of generating high ratings during the summer, when
cable traditionally unveils new product to take advantage of the broadcast fare of
The Regis Philbin-hosted nightly quiz show represented five
of the top 10 highest-rated shows for the week of Aug. 23 through 29, according to
Nielsen. Millionaire ended its two-week run Sunday, Aug. 29, with its best numbers
of all, attracting an average audience of 22,413,000 viewers.
While those on the broadcast side trumpeted the show's
success as a clear indication of the programming prowess of the "Big Four" when
they're committed to that end, naysayers from the cable side came forward.
"There will probably be some breast-beating with the
success of Millionaire, but history has shown that summer successes aren't
generally followed up with another success, and they cool on it," Brooks said.
"So if history repeats itself, next summer, we'll see a couple of low-rent