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Cable Ratings: Stacking Up 2011

The end of December sees the usual flurry of end-of-year ratings press releases touting gains and best-ever years. And 2011 was indeed a good year for cable, which for the first time took in more money than the broadcast networks during the upfronts ($9.3 billion vs. 9.1 billion, for those of you keeping score at home).

While the rankings at the top were unchanged - a sixth straight #1 rank for USA - there were other winners and losers that emerged from dissecting the year-end Nielsen data. Below, some highlights:

  • 2011’s big winners among the top 25 basic cable networks were History, FX and MTV, each up about 20 percent in primetime over 2010 in total viewers and adults 18-49 demo (according to Nielsen data from Turner Research, 12/27/10 - 12/11/11).
  • History has propelled itself into the top 5 cable networks on the strength of hit shows likePawn Stars,American PickersandTop Gear(as noted by the New York Timeslast week, which helped the network grow 22% in total viewers and 19% in the key demo in 2011.
  • FX continued to up its number of scripted originals in 2011, and has seen a boost in prime as a result - the net was up 21% in viewers and 22% with those 18-49 thanks in part to the highest rated season yet of Sons of Anarchy and a new hit in American Horror Story.
  • Also reporting sizeable total viewership gains were the young-male attractor Adult Swim (+11%) and a piece of the Bonnie Hammer empire, Syfy (+10%).
  • MTV led the gains in the 18-49 demo (+23%) thanks to the continued success of franchises like Jersey Shore and Teen Mom, as well as a 21% jump in overall primetime viewership. Another winner in the demo is AMC, which increased 10% thanks to the breakout success of its second season of (young-skewing)The Walking Dead.

  • Of the top 25 nets, TBS lost the most viewers 18-49, down 13%, and dipped 11% in total viewership as well (those figures do not include the network’s stalling late-night show,Conan). While the syndication debut ofThe Big Bang Theoryhas perked up TBS’s ratings in the fourth quarter, it is still mostly lacking originals in primetime - which it is seeking to fix as seen by its aggressive development slate this season.
  • Other flagging nets in 2011 were Nick at Nite, down 18% in total viewers and Lifetime, down 11% in the 18-49 demo (the latter is no doubt the focus of a future History-style revamp by GM Nancy Dubuc).
  • In the smaller cable networks, Investigation Discovery and Nat Geo Wild both posted significant gains in 2011. Led by its true-crime slate, I.D. climbed 50% with total viewers and 46% in the demo as GM Henry Schleiff continues to justify the network’s case as the fourth leg alongside Discovery’s flagship channel, TLC and Animal Planet. Nat Geo Wild, which this year moved its hit franchise The Dog Whisperer from its flagship channel to Wild, saw improvement of 52% in both ratings measures.
  • Also of note: Hallmark Movie Channel had the biggest 18-49 demo jump of all, up 69% for the year, as well as 49% in total viewers (though that’s because it grew a relatively tiny viewership: 27,000 vs. 16,000 in the 18-49 demo).

Top 5 - Total Viewers (Primetime)*

USA: 3.28 million

Disney: 2.69 million

TNT: 2.27 million

ESPN: 2.25 million

History: 2.0 million

Top 5 — Adults 18-49 (Primetime)*

USA: 1.25 million

ESPN: 1.06 million

TNT: 980,000

History: 898,000

TBS: 879,000

*Based on blended Live+7 and preliminary Live+SD data