Last year, USA Network wrestled its way back to the No. 1 crown in primetime viewing for the first time in six years. And a newcomer dominated the scene as well.
In 2006, comeback-kid USA registered a championship performance, ranking first among cable networks in terms of households, viewers and a variety of key demographics.
But in a surprising turn, Disney Channel — propelled by movies like High School Musical — also racked up a stellar 2006 performance, actually on par with USA by one measurement yardstick: primetime household ratings.
USA, bolstered by the return of its World Wrestling Entertainment franchise, and Disney Channel tied for the No. 1 spot for cable last year in primetime, each with a 2.2 average rating, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen Media Research data released last week.
But, by a whisker, USA averaged more actual primetime households. USA tallied 1,983,000 homes, 57,000 more than Disney's 1,926,000.
In terms of primetime ratings, USA and Disney unseated former top-rated champ TNT. The drama proponent placed third in 2006, with a 2.0, a 9% dip from its 2.2 mark in 2005.
USA, enjoying a boost not only from WWE Monday Night Raw but strong original series such as Monk and freshman offering Psych, hasn't been No. 1 in the primetime ratings since 2000.
Overall, 2006 was another good year for cable. Last year for the fifth straight time, ad-supported cable outpaced broadcast in terms of primetime-viewing share. Cable posted a 55.6 share, versus a 55.4 in 2005, compared with 40.0 for broadcast, which averaged a 40.7 in 2005, according to a Turner analysis of Nielsen data.
In terms of her channel's triumph, USA president Bonnie Hammer said it represented the culmination of a team effort during the past two years, following her promotion as head of both Sci Fi Channel and USA.
“The strategy was pretty simple,” Hammer said. “It was first of all, USA has never had a brand. We wanted to give it a brand. We wanted to bring back the WWE. We wanted to get another new original series hit and ultimately try to regain the crown of No. 1. And we did it because all of those things really worked together.”
USA launched a marketing campaign, with the tagline “Characters Welcome,” providing an umbrella that encompassed programming ranging from wrestling to Monk and its new companion series launched last year, Psych.
So this go-around, the WWE actually fit thematically into USA's lineup, “as opposed to living as an island, as it did years ago,” according to Hammer.
“What better fit than these huge superstars being embraced by the same brand that embraces a Tony Shalhoub,” she said.
USA's primetime ratings were up 10% last year, while Disney Channel, which isn't ad-supported, registered a 16% gain.
Disney Channel hit ratings gold last year with three of the year's Top 5 most-watched original movies — The Cheetah Girls 2, Return to Halloweentown and cultural phenomenon High School Musical — as well as original series Hannah Montana.
“Clearly, music is the common denominator that drove our success in 2006,” said Disney Channel Worldwide president of entertainment Gary Marsh. “That's not surprising, since music is the universal glue that binds kids together. But what's surprising is that these music-driven properties have traveled successfully across age demos, across genders, across the country and around the world.”
ESPN put in a notable primetime performance in 2006, placing fourth with a 1.8, up 13% from 2005's 1.6.
Lifetime and TBS each posted a 1.4 primetime rating. The women's network was down 13% from its 1.6 in 2005. TBS was flat compared with 2005.
Cartoon Network and Nick at Nite each saw a 1.3 primetime rating last year, which represented a 13% drop for Cartoon and a 24% decline for Nick at Nite.
Fox News Channel and Hallmark Channel rounded out the Top 10-ranking networks with a 1.2 primetime rating. The all-news channel was down 25% from the prior year, while Hallmark Channel was up 20%.
TNT's original drama The Closer last year was ad-supported cable's No. 1 original series among households and total viewers. But TNT's other attempt at an hourlong drama, Saved, couldn't be resuscitated.
“TNT launched one really successful new drama, in The Closer, but they haven't been able to follow up with anything since then,” said Shari Anne Brill, Carat USA's vice president and director of programming services. “USA, in contrast, has.”
According to Brill, “the key thing to putting you on the map is having an enduring series. It gets you viewers in week after week.”
USA not only has veteran viewer-magnet Monk, but also The Dead Zone, The 4400 and this year's Psych.
“It [Psych] did pretty well,” Brill said. “It paired up very nicely with Monk, and I think that will be an enduring franchise for them, too.”
Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks, said he certainly liked “the brag factor” of TNT's former slot as No. 1 in the primetime ratings.
“We like that we're still No. 1 in total day,” Koonin said. “We'd love to be the highest-rated network in all measures, but to be consistent with what our brand promise is, others could come in ahead of us. We respect what [USA has] done, and wrestling is a total difference-maker.”
But Hammer disagreed with the assertion that USA's 2006 win should be pinned on wrestling.
“I understand anyone and everyone wanting to just point to the one obvious thing that happens on a weekly basis, but it's far more than that,” she said. “We had three of the top five original cable series.”
Koonin argued that original shows don't provide a huge ratings boost to a network.
“Original series don't usually encompass enough hours to move the rating needle significantly,” he said. “What their importance is, though, is that they illuminate the network, they bring a lot of different viewers to the network.”