Getting a nice lead-in to the summer, basic cable ended the
May sweep and the 1998-99 season last week up 10 percent and 11 percent, respectively, in
primetime ratings. Cable set viewership records for itself during those two periods.
For starters, cable attracted its highest primetime
viewership ever for a May sweep period - averaging 2.3 million more households compared
with a year ago, at 22.6 million homes, up 11 percent - according to a Cabletelevision
Advertising Bureau analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. The CAB's numbers represent 25
of the sweep period's 28 days.
For the May sweep, cable also garnered a 22.9 rating in
primetime, an increase of 10 percent compared with last May, according to Nielsen data
provided by Turner Entertainment Research - numbers that include 26 of the sweep' 28 days.
The "Big Four" broadcast networks - ABC, CBS, NBC
and Fox - did a 30.6 primetime rating, a decrease of 5 percent. Adding in the hot The WB
Television Network and United Paramount Network, broadcast's primetime ratings were still
down 4 percent in May compared with a year ago.
According to Turner's data, the Big Four lost 1.3 million
homes in the May sweep, with their delivery dropping to 30.4 million households.
"The last hurrah for broadcast in the sweeps was the
February 1994 sweeps, when CBS had the Winter Olympics," CAB vice president of
research Jonathan Sims said. "After that sweep, the bottom fell out of the barrel for
the broadcast industry."
For the eight-month broadcast season - which ended last
week, just like the May sweep - basic cable also scored its highest primetime viewership
ever for that period, according to the CAB. Cable's rating were up 11 percent to a 24.1,
and its delivery increased by 2.7 million homes, or 13 percent, to 24 million.
For the season, the Big Four were down 7 percent, with a 31
rating, according to Turner.
In the May sweep for individual cable networks, USA Network
was No. 1 in primetime with a 2.4, up 14 percent compared with last May. Turner Network
Television ranked No. 2, down 23 percent to a 2.3 rating.
TNT was followed in primetime by: Nickelodeon with a 2.0,
up 18 percent; TBS Superstation at 1.9, up 12 percent; Cartoon Network at 1.5, up 15
percent; and Lifetime Television at 1.3, down 7 percent.
The broadcasters' aggregate single-digit ratings decrease
in the May sweep actually represented a fairly good showing for them compared with the way
their numbers have been trending, according to USA Networks Inc. senior vice president of
research Tim Brooks.
The broadcasters not only showcased some big miniseries in
May, such as Cleopatra and Noah's Ark, but they also ran several season finales. And some
of those finales - or penultimate shows for Home Improvement and NYPD Blue, for example -
were 90-minute episodes, Brooks said.
"The broadcasters are learning how to milk their
series' ends," he added. "They loaded up the sweep with one-shot pops."
And broadcast's numbers - particularly NBC's - really
suffered this May in comparison with last May, when the final episode of Seinfeld ran and
posted big numbers, Sims pointed out.
In terms of individual cable networks in the May sweep, USA
continued to rack up huge ratings for its WWF Raw and WWF War Zone World Wrestling
Federation juggernaut on Monday nights.
On May 10, the block attracted the largest audience ever
for a regularly scheduled entertainment program on cable when it did a whopping 8.1
rating, reaching 6.2 million homes.
"No cable show since the days of white-hot South Park
has been able to match that kind of number," Brooks said.
This last Monday (May 24), just after the death of wrestler
Owen Hart, USA's Monday-night wrestling posted another strong number, earning a 7.1
TNT's May sweep ratings slide was due in part to unusual
circumstances surrounding its airing of the National Basketball Association playoffs,
according to a network spokesman.
On several nights, both TNT and TBS were airing playoff
games, in a sense competing with each other for viewers. And because the New York Knicks,
Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs swept their series, TNT didn't have as many playoff
games as usual, the TNT spokesman said.
Nick ended the season as the winner in kids' ratings for
Saturday morning for the second consecutive year, defeating all of its broadcast and cable
competition. It was No. 1 with a 4.2 national rating among kids aged two through 11.
Nick was the most-watched network for children on Saturday,
beating its closest rival, ABC, by 31 percent in the ratings. ABC did a 3.2 rating, Fox
Kids a 3.1, The WB a 2.2, Disney Channel a 1.7, Cartoon Network a 1.5 and NBC a 1.0,
according to Nielsen data cited by Nick.
Nick general manager Cyma Zarghami pointed out that Nick
doesn't even air first-run shows on Saturday mornings - it reairs episodes of series that
ran during the week.
During the just-ended season, Nick also extended its push
into primetime with kids' shows, so it now has a full-hour "Nickel-O-Zone" kids'
block from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. The ratings on that hour were up 48 percent during the May
sweep, Zarghami said.
"We've been able to build momentum because kids know
we're there for them in primetime," she added.
Nick was No. 1 in the May sweep for total-day, up 7 percent
to a 1.5 rating.
In primetime in the May sweep, the biggest ratings gainers
were Courtroom Television Network, up 200 percent to a 0.3; Fox News Channel, up 100
percent to a 0.4, and Country Music Television, up 50 percent to a 0.3.
A bevy of networks were up 33 percent: MTV: Music
Television to a 0.8 and MSNBC and Animal Planet, each to a 0.4.
At FNC, senior vice president of programming Chet Collier
said the network did well because it has been consistent in terms of its style and talent
on its primetime programming.
At MTV: Music Television, executive vice president of
programming Brian Graden is reaping the success of the battery of music- and
video-oriented shows he has brought to the network. Two-thirds of MTV's primetime lineup
consists of video-oriented shows, he said.
MTV's primetime ratings are now up 52 percent from what
they were two years ago, when Graden started making his changes.
The biggest losers in terms of primetime ratings this May
were: Fox Family Channel, which was down 36 percent to a 0.7; CNBC, down 17 percent to a
0.5; and Comedy Central and FX, both down 14 percent to a 0.6. Fox Family has been losing
older viewers as it tries to make the transition to a contemporary family network.
Cable's solid growth in the May sweep paves the way for the
summer, which has essentially become the start of cable's new season, rather than the
Many cable networks are now debuting their new series in
the summer - when the broadcasters are airing tired reruns - believing those shows will
get extra attention from viewers and the press.
But Sims said cable had such a phenomenal summer last year
that it may be hard to top.