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Cable Bests Broadcast

Even broadcast television’s best sweeps programming couldn’t derail cable’s ratings momentum going into the summer months.

Ad-supported cable networks trounced the broadcast networks in the household share race for May, drawing 60% of all viewing audiences, according to Disney-ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research.

TNT led cable’s charge for the month, knocking USA Network out of the top spot for the first time this year on the strength of its National Basketball Association postseason coverage.

Cable increased its May share by 7% over last year’s 57% mark, according to Nielsen. Despite May being a traditional sweeps month, when broadcasters showcase their top shows, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and The CW only mustered a 40% share of households watching television, down 11% from last year.

While the three-month Writer’s Guild of America strike may have slowed the momentum broadcast networks typically build with audiences going into the May sweeps, TV historian Tim Brooks said the broadcasters failed to offer new and compelling shows to help turn the tide against cable.

“Cable didn’t exactly generate a lot of new [programming] excitement itself during the period, but it’s more that the broadcast networks are being conservative and not launching a lot of new programming,” he said. “What you’re seeing now is the power of the cable brands.”

TNT, one of cable’s more successful brands, averaged 2.9 million viewers in primetime to top all cable networks during the period of April 28 to May 25. TNT was buoyed by the performance of its live coverage of the NBA Playoffs, which dunked 12 of the top 30 shows during the month.

USA, which placed first during the first four months of 2008, finished second, drawing 2.5 million viewers — a record May performance for the NBC Universal-owned service and up 9% from last year.

Disney finished third with 2 million viewers, although it was the only network in the top 10 to post a decline — off 6% from last year’s 2.1 million viewer mark.

ESPN (1.8 million, up 28%) and Nick at Nite (1.6 million, up 38%) rounded out the top five.

On a total-day basis, Nickelodeon once again topped all networks, reaching 2.1 million viewers — an 11% increase over its May 2007 performance. Nick’s sister service, Nick at Nite, finished second with 1.5 million viewers, up 31% from last year. TNT (1.3 million, up 5%), Disney Channel (1.2 million, down 3%) and USA Network (1.2 million, up 6%) filled the next three spots.

As for individual programs, it was mostly hoops: eight of the top 10 shows were NBA playoff games. TNT, had three of the top four: the May 19 game-seven contest, in which the San Antonio Spurs advanced past the New Orleans Hornets was first with 6.55 million viewers; the first game of the Spurs-Los Angeles Lakers Western Conference finals two nights later was second, with a 6.19 million; and the third game of that series on May 25 was fourth with 5.73 million watchers on average. ESPN’s best game, the May 22 Eastern Conference final matchup between the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons, was fifth with just under 5.7 million.

USA’s presentation of the first installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was third with 5.84 million viewers on May 10.

The top original cable entertainment show for the month was Nick’s telefilm Chasing Zoey, which was 10th with 5.35 million on May 2.

Mike Reynolds contributed to this report.

R. Thomas Umstead
R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.