2014: A Tough Ratings Year for Cable's Top 25

It was a good year in Bristol, Conn., where ESPN topped the Nielsen primetime charts among total viewers.

But that wasn’t the case for most of cable’s top 25 networks in 2014. Whether they lost eyeballs to original fare on Netflix, other unmeasurables on video-on-demand, tablets and mobile platforms, viewership that extended beyond  live+7 metrics or watchers who strayed to smaller networks, 18 of cable’s top 25 channels took it on the chin, losing footing versus 2013 levels – with notables like No. 2 USA Network, No. 4 Disney Channel, No. 5 History and No. 6 TBS all sustaining double-digit erosion.

For its part, ESPN saw its primetime audience edge increase 5% to 2.32 million viewers from 2.21 million in 2013, when it finished third, behind its puissant array of pro and college pigskin games.

Other gainers, according to a Disney Media Networks analysis of Nielsen data -- live +7 from Dec. 30, 2013 through Dec. 14, 2014 and live+same-day from Dec. 15 through Dec. 28 – were ninth-ranked Discovery, up 2% to 1.39 million viewers from 1.37 million in 2013, and No. 10 HGTV, which grew 5% to 1.34 million from 1.28 million.

Elsewhere, No. 18 TLC inched up 1% to 1.07 million from 1.06 million. Spike rose 4% to 905,000 from 873,000 to finish 22nd, ahead of No. 23 Hallmark Channel, which benefited from a strong performance from its cadre of Christmas movies, to notch 3% improvement to 894,000 from 868,000 in 2013. ID, though, was the big gainer, scoring a 13% advance to 821,000 watchers from 724,000, as it ranked 24th overall.

For the rest of the top 25, the numbers skewed wrong.  No. 2 USA fell from its usual top perch, shedding 21% to 2.13 million watchers from a sector-best 2.69 million in 2013. With its competitors losing more ground, TNT moved up from fifth to third, averaging 1.99 million, 4% less than its 2.08 million mark the prior year. Leading the pack, TNT registered six of basic cable's top 15 original dramas, with stalwarts like Rizzoli & Isles, joined by newcomers The Last Ship and The Librarians

Sliding from second in 2013, fourth-ranked Disney Channel saw its total viewership decline 22% to 1.91 million from 2.44 million, while fifth-place History was off 14% to 1.82 million from 2.02 million in 2013, when it ranked fourth.  TBS stayed sixth, even though it decreased 10% to 1.817 million from 2.02 million.

ESPN and USA were the only cable networks to average more than 2 million watchers in primetime during 2014, versus six the prior year.

Cable news leader Fox News Channel lost 1% of its average audience to 1.78 million from 1.79 million, but remained in seventh place. FX maintained its eighth-place spot, despite a 4% decrease to 1.40 million watchers from 1.47 million.  

Missing the bump from the final run of Emmy winner Breaking Bad,  11th-ranked AMC dropped 4% to 1.33 million from 1.39 million, despite the runaway success of The Walking Dead, which tallied 16 of cable’s largest  20 audiences in 2014.

Cartoon Network was 12th with 1.28 million, down 8% from 1.40 million in 2013. A&E, seeing docuseries hit Duck Dynasty cool, plummeted 30% to 1.26 million from 1.79 million.

ABC Family was No. 14, dipping 2% to 1.20 million from 1.22 million, ahead of Syfy, which lost 7% to 1.113 million from 1.19 million, despite the publicity and social whirl for the second Sharknado telefilm.

No. 16 Lifetime and No. 17 Adult Swim were both off 13% to 1.111 million and 1.08 million. While No. 18 TLC pushed up, the next three services, Food Network, Nick at Nite and Bravo, receded at respective clips of 5%, 2% and 4% to 1.067 million, 1.065 million and 968,000 watchers.

With Spike, Hallmark and ID all to the good, MTV was the last member of cable’s top 25 to retreat, down 4% to 778,000 from 813,000.