Cable's ratings momentum has the medium in position to win the first quarter from the Big Four broadcast networks for the first time.
With just over a week to go in the quarter, basic cable had a 46.7 share of primetime household viewing (from Dec. 30 through March 18), versus 43.7 for NBC, CBS, Fox and ABC, according to a Turner Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.
Cable's share grew from 45.2 in the first quarter of 2002 (Dec. 31, 2001, through March 31, 2002), when the Big Four's share was 44.8.
"This is the first time the cable networks have beaten the broadcast networks in first quarter, and it's the fourth consecutive quarter that cable's won," said Turner Broadcasting System Inc. chief research officer Jack Wakshlag during a conference call with reporters last Wednesday. "The trends remain very powerful."
Cable, though, fell short against broadcast during the first-quarter-to-date period if The WB, UPN and Pax TV are factored in.
With those three outlets, broadcast claimed a 48.8 share, down from 50.5 in the first quarter of 2002, according to Turner.
It appears that TNT won the first-quarter primetime cable-network crown.
Turner data shows the "drama" network averaged 1.6 on a national basis, up 14 percent from first quarter 2002, bolstered by Law & Order
reruns, the National Basketball Association All-Star Game and the original film Monte Walsh.
"It's not just one show, it's not just one week, it's not just one game that's prompting the number. It's about a broad schedule," Wakshlag said.
Fox News Channel (up 56 percent), Nickelodeon (even) and Lifetime Television (down 22 percent) tied for second, each averaging 1.4.
TBS Superstation (flat) and USA Network (off 7 percent) were next.
Rounding out the top 10: Cartoon Network, down 8 percent, to 1.1; CNN, up 43 percent, to 1.0; and TLC (flat), A&E Network (down 11 percent), ESPN (even) and Sci Fi Channel (up 33 percent), all averaging 0.8.
Other primetime winners: History Channel and FX rose 17 percent, to 0.7; Court TV, up 40 percent, to 0.7; and Home & Garden Television and AMC, each up 20 percent, to 0.6.
On the decline: Discovery Channel and TNN: The National Network dropped 30 percent and 13 percent, respectively, to 0.7 apiece; and ABC Family declined 29 percent, to 0.5.
Steve Donohue and Mike Reynolds contributed to this story.