Neither pig-stabbing Survivors in the Outback nor couples tempted by infidelity on an island could halt basic cable's ratings growth in February.
Cable racked up a tidy 11 percent gain in primetime for the month, posting a 27.0 rating compared with 24.3 a year ago, according to Turner Entertainment Research based on Nielsen Media Research data.
In spite of a flood of blockbuster broadcast-sweeps programming-such as Survivor: the Australian Outback
and Temptation Island
-ratings for the Big Four still dropped 5 percent in primetime last month. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox slid to a 30.5 rating, from 32.2 a year ago.
"The broadcasters bring out their large missiles during the sweeps and shoot at each other," said Turner Broadcasting System Inc. vice president of audience research Robert Sieber. "Total viewing is up in the country, and it's being driven by cable."
Nielsen-in what creates a rather confusing situation when it comes to explaining the ratings-provides different sets of viewership data for the month of February, which it defines this year as Jan. 29 to Feb. 25, and the period it calls the February sweeps, which occurred Feb. 1 to Feb. 28.
Based on Nielsen's month of February data, USA Network hit No. 1 in the monthly primetime ratings for the first time since it lost the World Wrestling Federation last September. It tied with TBS Superstation for the top ranking; each posted a 2.0.
But USA was down from a 2.4 a year ago, a 17 percent drop from when the network still had the wrestling programming now on TNN: The National Network and MTV: Music Television.
Last month, USA got a viewership boost from the miniseries Attila
and its Westminster Dog Show coverage. In fact, part 1 of Attila
was the highest-rated cable program in Nielsen's month of February period, with a 6.1 rating.
However, using Nielsen's February sweeps period-which doesn't include Jan. 30 and 31, when the two parts of the high-rated Attila
aired-USA fell to No. 3 in primetime, with a 1.8 rating. It slipped behind both TBS and Lifetime Television, which posted a 1.9 rating.
" Attila I
fell out of the sweeps period," said Ray Giacopelli, USA Cable's senior vice president of research.
And for the February sweeps period, basic cable did better-and broadcast did worse-than in the month of February. Cable was up 12 percent for the sweeps, while the Big Four were down 10 percent. [The rest of this story uses data based on the month of February as defined by Nielsen, not the February sweeps].
At a conference in New York last week, USA Networks CEO Barry Diller crowed about how the post-WWF incarnation of his general-entertainment service tied for the month of February's top spot.
In effect, Diller said, the WWF had proved to be a double-edged sword for USA. While wrestling had twice the ratings of any other show on cable, according to Diller, it attracted young males, ages 19 to 25-and they didn't necessarily stay to watch other programming on USA.
"Essentially, our viewers came to watch wrestling and left to pursue who knows what other ungodly deeds," he said at last week's "The Front Row" conference in New York, sponsored by Variety, a sister publication to Multichannel News.
TBS Superstation-fueled by monster ratings for five of its Sunday-night theatricals-in the month of February rose from 1.7 a year ago, an 18 percent increase. TBS also saw a surge in the ad-friendly 18-to-49 demographic: It rose 38 percent in that age group in primetime.
Lifetime's 1.9 primetime rating was up from 1.5 a year ago, a 27 percent gain. While it was knocked off the No. 1 perch it held for primetime in January, the women's network nonetheless enjoyed its strongest February ever, both in primetime and total-day ratings.
"Whose afraid of the big bad sweeps?" said Tim Brooks, Lifetime's senior vice president of programming.
On Sunday, Feb. 25, Lifetime even did well against ABC's biopic Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. The first part of the Garland miniseries skewed older, with 56 percent of its female viewers over 50 years old, Brooks said.
In contrast, 61 percent of female viewers of the two original dramas Lifetime telecast that night- The Division
and Any Day Now
-were under 50, according to Brooks.
Cartoon Network had a strong February, garnering a 1.7 rating, up from 1.6 a year ago, a 6 percent increase.
Nickelodeon and Turner Network Television each did a 1.5 primetime rating. Nick was down 12 percent from a 1.7 a year ago, while TNT was flat in households.
But Sieber pointed out that TNT, boosted by theatrical titles and original movies, has enjoyed a vast demographic improvement. The network is up 20 percent in primetime among adults 18 to 49.
After TNT and Nick, A & E Network and Discovery Channel tied with a 1.3 primetime rating.
TNN, boosted by the WWF, scored a huge 57 percent in February, to a 1.1 from a 0.7. At the "Front Row" conference, Viacom president Mel Karmazin had plenty to say about the jump-start TNN has received from the WWF, especially among younger viewers.
"Wrestling is amazing in what it has done for us," Karmazin said. "We're very happy we have it [wrestling]. It's a very hard-to-reach demographic."
Among the all-news channels, Fox News Channel enjoyed a banner month in February, outperforming its rivals. FNC was up 80 percent in primetime, with a 0.9 rating, beating Cable News Network. CNN was flat with a 0.8, and MSNBC was also flat, but with a 0.4.
In total day, FNC also beat CNN. FNC posted a 0.5 rating, up a huge 150 percent from a year ago. CNN was flat at a 0.4.
Monica Hogan contributed to this story.