Facing stiff competition from broadcast in the February
sweep, basic cable saw a significant slowdown in its primetime-ratings gains, only
increasing 1 percent, officials said last week.
For a variety of reasons -- a drop in viewership for
wrestling and pro basketball, a slow news period, ABC's juggernaut Who Wants to Be
a Millionaire and the ER murder-and-mayhem two-parter -- a number of major
cable networks saw their primetime ratings slide significantly in February, including
Turner Network Television and TBS Superstation.
For the full sweep period, which ended March 1, TNT was
down 25 percent in primetime, to a 1.5 from a 2.0 a year ago, according to Turner
Entertainment Research from Nielsen Media Research data.
TBS dropped 15 percent to a 1.7 from a 2.0. TBS tied with
Nickelodeon for second place with the 1.7, which represented an 11 percent drop for Nick
from a year ago.
The Turner networks both suffered because ratings for World
Championship Wrestling and National Basketball Association games were off significantly.
For cable, USA Network was No. 1 in primetime, posting a
2.2 rating, down 15 percent from a year ago.
"I've never seen such a wide margin between our
network and our basic-cable competitors," USA Networks Inc. vice president of
research Ray Giacopelli said.
In primetime in February, basic cable's ratings were
up only 1 percent, to a 24.1 from a 23.8.
"We're getting a slowdown in growth -- a pretty
substantial one," Turner Networks vice president of audience development Robert
Sieber said. "This is an unusual February for us."
In the February sweep, the "Big Four" were up 1
percent, to a 33.5 from a 33.1 in primetime a year ago. ABC enjoyed a whopping 17 percent
increase in primetime, to a 10.4 -- a gain fueled mainly by the continuing success of Who
Wants to Be a Millionaire.
Because the broadcast networks break out their
high-profile, blockbuster programming during sweep periods, cable usually saves its
marquee originals for other times, such as the summer.
"You can expect the broadcasters to do so much
stunting in February. The basic-cable networks usually hold off their key
programming," Giacopelli said.
TNT and TBS saw substantial ratings declines for both WCW
shows and NBA games in February, according to Sieber. For example, the Wednesday-night WCW
Thunder was down to a 2.3 rating on TBS this February, compared with a 3.5 a year ago.
And WCW Monday Night Nitro Live! on TNT dropped to a 4.8 from a 3.0. Ratings for
the NBA on TBS and TNT dropped, too, to a 1.0 from a 1.9 and a 1.1 from a 1.8,
"It's a great to get high-profile programming,
but when there's a problem with that high-profile programming, these networks
suffer," Sieber said.
He added that some wrestling numbers are starting to
improve. For example, TNT's Nitro on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, did a 4.0
rating, making it the 11th-highest-rated basic-cable show in February.
In contrast to Turner, USA's WWF Monday Night Raw was
up in February compared with a year ago, by 11 percent, to a 6.3 rating. USA also scored
with its original movie Cabin by the Lake, which posted a 5.4 rating and ranked No.
7 among all basic-cable shows for the month.
The primetime ratings winners this February included: USA
Networks' Sci Fi Channel, which was up 50 percent to a 0.9; Courtroom Television
Network, up 200 percent to a 0.6; Bravo, The Film and Arts Network, up 50 percent to a
0.3; Food Network and Travel Channel, each up 33 percent to a 0.4; and MTV: Music
Television, up 29 percent to a 0.9.
The bigger losers in primetime in February, apart from TNT
and TBS, were: WGN, down 42 percent to a 0.7; and CNBC, which dropped 29 percent to a 0.5.
In October, WGN stopped airing some programming from The WB
Television Network, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer,replacing it with
theatricals, and that hurt its ratings, according to Derk Tenzythoff, vice president of
programming services for UVTV, which distributes WGN.
It will take time for viewers to find and get used to the
movies, and those movies' numbers on WGN have been improving, he added.
CNBC fared better in total day than in primetime, staying
flat at a 0.4 in February. In contrast, Cable News Network was down 20 percent in total
day to a 0.4, while it dipped only 11 percent in primetime to a 0.8.
A CNBC spokesman said the network suffered in comparison to
last February because primetime ratings for Rivera Live and Hardball with Chris
Matthews soared in 1999 due to their shows on the impeachment of President Clinton.