Cable Ratings Rock B’cast

1/02/2009 7:00 PM Eastern

Despite ratings boosts from Olympic gold-medal winner Michael Phelps and a history-making presidential race, the broadcast networks still suffered a relentless loss of viewership in 2008.

Last year, the Big Four broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — saw their primetime share of household viewing drop 6%, to a 32.7 from a 34.9 in 2007, despite the benefit of having the Beijing Summer Games and the presidential election, according to a Turner Broadcasting System analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

2008’s Top 10 List
Cable’s 2008 primetime household ratings roster:
SOURCE: Disney ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen data.
USA Network 2.2
Disney Channel 1.9
TNT 1.8
ESPN 1.7
Fox News Channel 1.7
TBS 1.5
Nick at Nite 1.4
Lifetime 1.2
Hallmark Channel 1.2
A&E Network 1.1
Cartoon Network 1.1
CNN 1.1

In contrast to broadcast’s decline, ad-supported cable continued its ratings-growth march, with its primetime share up 3% last year versus 2007, at 59.2 compared with 57.2, according to Turner.

“Overall, the story’s been consistent now for the last few years,” said Mike Greco, Lifetime Television’s executive vice president of research. “The broadcast networks continue to shed share points. It’s happening across all the demos, and cable is really picking that up.”

In fact, six broadcasters grouped together — the Big Four, along with The CW and MyNetworkTV — have lost 1.5 million households in primetime season to date. That’s the equivalent of the No. 19 TV market — Orlando, Fla. — according to Turner.

As cable viewership increased last year, the larger cable outlets saw gains. The No. 1 cable network in primetime, USA Network, and the winner in total day, Nickelodeon, both shattered cable-viewership records in 2008.

“The big are getting bigger,” Turner chief research officer Jack Wakshlag said.

Star Series of ’08
Ad-supported cable’s top 10 returning original shows:
Network Show Total Viewers
SOURCE: Turner Broadcasting System analysis of Nielsen data
TNT The Closer 8.5 million
USA Network Burn Notice 5.9 million
USA Network Monk 5.7 million
TNT Saving Grace 5.2 million
USA Network Psych 5.2 million
Lifetime Army Wives 4.4 million
Bravo Project Runway 4.1 million
Comedy Central South Park 3.7 million
Discovery Channel Deadliest Catch 3.6 million
MTV The Hills 3.3 million

USA, with a 2.2 household rating — a 5% increase over 2007 — averaged 2.86 million total viewers in 2008 in primetime, according to a Disney ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen data, a record for cable.

USA was followed in primetime by Disney Channel, with a 1.9 rating, a 14% decrease. In 2007, Disney had been in the primetime’s top spot, beating USA by a whisker to take the ratings crown. Last year, the tables were turned.

For total day last year, Nick was No. 1 and averaged a 1.7 household rating, a 6% dip, and set a record in total day for viewers, with 2.2 million. It was followed in second place by sister service Nick at Nite, with a 1.3 rating for an 18% gain.

“We [Nickelodeon] had our most-watched year in total day with people 2-plus,” said Cyma Zarghami, president of the Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group. “The story truly is we are not cannibalizing ourselves, obviously. As each one of our parts does better, we’re taking more and more share out of the marketplace.”

Events of the Year
The 10 top-rated telecasts of 2008
Telecast Network Audience
SOURCE: Disney ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen data
NFL: Eagles-Cowboys (Sept. 15) ESPN 18.6 million
Election Night (11 to midnight) CNN 15.3 million
NFL: Steelers-Redskins (Nov. 3) ESPN 14.2 million
NFL: Bears-Packers (Dec. 22) ESPN 13.8 million
MLB: Red Sox-Rays (Oct. 19) TBS 13.4 million
Election Night (9 to 10) CNN 13.2 million
NFL: Vikings-Packers (Sept. 8) ESPN 12.5 million
Election Night (10 to 11) CNN 12.4 million
NFL: Jets-Chargers (Sept. 22) ESPN 11.9 million
NFL: 49ers-Cardinals (Nov. 10) ESPN 11.9 million

The Nick TV empire snared a big piece of kids’ viewing in 2008. The Nickelodeon Kids and Family Group’s TV properties — Nickelodeon, Noggin, The N and Nicktoons Network — collectively represented 47% of all viewing for kids 2 to 11 in 2008.

“One of the things we set out to do is really weave all of our parts together,” Zarghami said.

While some of the top cable networks were flat in terms of household ratings growth, for the year 39 ad-supported cable networks had had their best primetime numbers ever in the 18-to-49 demographic, according to Wakshlag.

“The good news is that so far we haven’t seen the top cable networks go the way the broadcast networks have gone,” Greco said. “It’s not like the top networks are really eroding. … The point is, the wealth is spread.”

In its fourth season last year TNT’s The Closer remained the No. 1 ad-supported cable series of the season and of all time. USA’s In Plain Sight took bragging honors as the No. 1 new cable series of the year in 2008.

“People are really going to where the best programming is on, and it’s really leveling the playing field,” Greco said.

In terms of specific demographics, Nick at Nite took first place in total day in adults 18 to 49 last year. The off-network sitcom George Lopez has been a huge surprise success for Nick at Nite at 10 p.m., as the network is up 50% in that demo compared with the same time period in 2007, according to Nielsen data from Nick.

Nickelodeon last year enjoyed ratings success with animated fare such as The Fairly OddParents, as well as The Naked Brothers Band and iCarly, followed up by the headway George Lopez made, according to Zarghami.

“The real icing on the cake was the success of George Lopez in primetime,” she said. “So for the first time in a long time we really had it going on across the board at exactly the same time. … Kids love George Lopez, and adults are finding George Lopez through their kids.”

Lifetime was No. 1 in total day in 2008 for women 25 to 54 for the third consecutive year, and has seen nine consecutive months of growth among women 18 to 49. In fact, the women’s network has succeeded in driving down its median age.

“Our goal was to get a little bit younger, be a little more relevant and current,” Greco said. “And we actually shed over a full year on our median age. We went from 48.7 to a 47.4 (for total day).”