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Carrie Underwood may be America’s new idol, but cable remained the top choice among American viewers during the May sweeps and the 2004-05 TV season overall.

The broadcast industry, though, is not ready to concede defeat. Far from it, in fact.

Cable racked up a 52.0 primetime household share during the recently completed season, which spanned Sept. 20, 2004 through May 25, topping the seven broadcast networks by 6.5 points, according to a Turner Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. The win marks the second consecutive year cable has bested the seven broadcast networks during a full TV season — and that’s as the two media vie for advertisers’ dollars in the upfront marketplace. (See story on page 6.)

But a broadcast-industry organization says Turner’s research doesn’t tell the whole story. Calling Turner’s broadcast methodology flawed, the Television Bureau of Advertising says that broadcast beat cable when local station programming and “independent broadcast affiliates,” which include Spanish-language networks like Univision and Telemundo, are factored into the calculations.

Bolstered by a 6.14 household share from those independent stations, which was up 28% from the 2003-04 season, the broadcast networks’ collective household share jumps to 56.3, according to TVB’s analysis of Nielsen data. That number, however, was slightly down from 2003-04, according to the TVB.

Since Turner’s data incorporates results from local programming like regional sports networks and regional cable-news networks like New York 1 News, TVB spokesman Gary Belis said the inclusion of “independent” numbers provide for a more accurate comparison between the media.

“The Hispanic numbers in particular are such a growth story that [Turner] has to start acknowledging them before the 'Don’t Count Us Out’ people will be at his door,” he said. (Don’t Count Us Out is a coalition of minority, community and industry groups who’ve lobbied against Nielsen’s Local People Meter system as one that undercounts minority viewers.)

But Turner Broadcasting System Inc. chief research officer Jack Wakshlag said Turner compares the national broadcast networks with ad-supported cable based on the computations that Nielsen provides, noting that local and regional cable networks only represent about 10% of the total cable figure. He also said the Spanish-language networks do not use the national Nielsen system to measure viewing, but instead use the National Hispanic Television Index.

“We look at what Nielsen calls national broadcast networks and the hours that the networks are on, because that’s what [the networks] are responsible for,” he said. “The 90% of [national] ad-supported cable networks are not competing with the local Fox affiliate [from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m]. Fox [network] is not responsible for that programming and does not sell that content, so it doesn’t matter.”

Cable also proved superior during the May sweeps period, according to the Turner analysis. Despite strong ratings from the finales of Fox’s American Idol and 24; ABC’s Desperate Housewives and Lost; and CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, basic cable’s 50.7 primetime share for the April 28 through May 25 period outpaced broadcast’s 46.8 share, according to Turner.

Cable has now beaten the seven broadcast networks in every sweeps period since Feb. 2004, according to Turner.

The TVB analysis, however, finds a different outcome. In TVB’s definition of total ad-supported broadcast figures, that medium comes out ahead with a 57.9 share.

But Wakshlag said no matter how you slice the numbers, cable will continue to increase its viewership at the expense of the broadcast networks.

“A year from now, no matter how they calculate, cable will continue to outdeliver the broadcast networks,” he said. “Broadcast numbers are still worse than they were a year ago, while cable continues to grow.”

More importantly for cable, the industry continued to made strides over the broadcast networks in attracting more 18-to-49-year-old viewers. Turner reports that cable gained 1.17 million subscribers during the 2004-05 season, while the seven broadcast networks lost 264,000 viewers within the advertiser-coveted demo.

Even TVB’s numbers show that among the 18-to-49 demo, the collective rating for the seven networks fell to 17.1 from a 17.3 a year ago. With all of broadcast combined, though, the medium scored a 19.5 rating against the demo in the May 2005 sweeps period, compared to a 18.6 during the same period last year.

Wakshlag also said cable’s share of primetime ad dollars continue to grow, from 22% in 2000-01, to 30% for the 2004-05 season. But those outlays still remain out of balance compared to overall viewing patterns, he said.

In other trends, Wakshlag said overall TV viewing has never been higher. Despite an increase in Internet usage, viewers tuned in an average of 32.4 hours per week during the 2004-05 season, versus 30.3 hours spent in the 2000-01 campaign.

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