Cable Nets Pick Up Younger Viewers

It’s no secret basic cable has been regularly outdrawing broadcast networks relative to overall audience share. And ad-supported networks once again outperformed broadcasters during the first quarter of 2005.

But cable also continues to siphon younger viewers away from the seven broadcast networks, according to cable research executives.

For the third straight year, basic cable won the first quarter, with its primetime share reaching 51.4 during the period, spanning Dec. 27 to March 27, up from a 49.2 in first quarter 2004, according to Turner Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

Broadcast’s share decreased from a 47.0 to a 45.8 in first quarter 2005.


Cable also made significant strides toward narrowing the broadcast networks’ longstanding hold on Madison Avenue-coveted 18-to-49-year-old viewers during the quarter. Lifetime executive vice president of research Tim Brooks said the broadcasters’ 42.0 share of the demo barely beat cable’s 40.6 for the quarter. That 1.4-point differential represents significant improvement for cable since the corresponding quarter in 2001, when the broadcast networks held a 49% to 33% advantage.

In last year’s first quarter, broadcast held a 44% share among adults 18 to 49, while cable counted a 40% share, according to a Lifetime analysis of Nielsen data.

Turner Broadcasting System Inc. chief research officer Jack Wakshlag said the broadcast networks will lose approximately 428,000 viewers within the demo this season, following the loss of whopping 1.3 million during the 2003-04 TV season.

Turner is projecting that the industry will pull within one share point of broadcast’s demo delivery when the 2004-05 TV season ends May 15: broadcast could close with a 41.8 share to ad-supported cable’s 40.9

Wakshlag said that just 7% of broadcast network shows deliver a rating of six or higher among viewers 18 to 49 and only 16% generate a rating of four or higher against these viewers.

“The fragmentation of television continues and affects broadcast network ratings and programs to a significant degree,” he said.

Leading the charge for cable was Turner Network Television, which averaged an industry-high 1.19 million viewers within the demo in primetime, followed closely by sister network TBS with 1.08 million viewers.

For the current season through March 27, cable is topping the broadcasters in reaching adults 18 to 34 (a 41.5 share to 40.0); viewers 12 to 17 (49.4 to 31.9); and kids 2 to 11 (51.7 to 24.4), according to the Turner analysis.

Those numbers give cable a dominant hold on younger viewers, according to Wakshlag.

“People under the age of 35 have already shifted to cable, and the edge there is large enough to tilt the number of people in the U.S. to cable as well,” he said.


On an individual household basis, TNT was the leader in primetime during the first quarter with a 2.2 rating, up 5% from the same period last year, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of the Nielsen data.

USA Network placed second with a 2.0, down 5% from first quarter 2004, while Nick At Nite pulled into the third position with a 1.8 (the network did not become rated separately from channel sharer Nickelodeon until second quarter 2004).

Disney Channel (1.7, flat) finished fourth, while Cartoon Network (up 14%) and Lifetime (ahead 7%) were next, each with a 1.6 rating. TBS (1.5, down 6%), Fox News Channel (1.4, up 17%) and Spike TV and ESPN (tied with a 1.3 and up 44% and 8% respectively) round out the top 10.

Nickelodeon and Nick At Nite took the top two slots on a 24-hour basis during the quarter, with the kids kingpin averaging a flat 1.9 household rating, while its sister service registered a 1.5 for its inaugural first-quarter mark.

Following closely behind were TNT (1.3, up 8%), Cartoon Network (1.2, up 20%) and, tied at a 1.1 rating, Lifetime (up 10%) and Disney Channel (1.1, down 8%). With the exception of Hallmark Channel (0.7, up 17%) the rest of the top 10, including USA (1.0), TBS Network (0.9), Fox News (0.8) and ESPN (0.7) were all flat compared to the prior-year period.

Lifetime’s Brooks said the gains are spread across all the top networks — all but one of the top 10 highest-rated services posted a quarterly increase, over the prior-year period. “We’re entering an era where the network, not a particular show, is the hook for viewers,” Brooks said. “You get networks like Fox News, Lifetime and Spike TV that people are watching mostly because of the brand — it’s really an era of hit networks. The broadcasters are still dependent on the strength of individual shows.”

A number of strongly branded networks garnered record quarterly ratings performances, including Court TV with a 0.9 primetime average, and The History Channel, with a 1.1. Also, Hallmark Channel’s original Friday night movie franchise helped it to a record 1.0 mark — the network’s highest-ever — while Sci Fi Channel rode original scripted series like Battlestar Galactica to match last year’s 1.1 average.


Other networks posting primetime ratings gains included: Comedy Central and ABC Family (0.9, up 13%); TV Land (0.8, 14%); Turner South (0.7, 133%); Food Network (0.7, 17%); VH1 (0.6, 20%), National Geographic Channel (0.4, 33%); Discovery Health Channel (0.3, 50%); and Noggin/The N (0.2, 100%).

Networks on the Nielsen household downside in the period: HGTV (0.8, off 11%); Discovery Channel (0.8, 27%); TLC (0.7, 30%); SoapNet and Animal Planet (0.5, 17%); TV Guide Channel (0.3, 25%); and WE: Women’s Entertainment (0.2, 33%).

Fox News Network continued its dominance of the cable news genre. Its 1.4 household rating in the first quarter doubled its closest competitor Cable News Network, which posted a flat 0.7. MSNBC (0.3) and CNN Headline News (0.2) held steady, while business news proponent CNBC (0.1, down 50%) lost ground.

Comedy Central’s The Comedy Central Roast of Jeff Foxworthy was the top-rated entertainment show of a quarter dominated by sports programming and news coverage. Roast’s 4.6 rating on March 20 was good for a seventh place tie with Fox News’s Feb. 20 coverage of President Bush’s State of The Union address and ESPN’s Dec. 31, 2004 Boise State/Louisville college football bowl game.

ESPN’s Jan. 2 Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants National Football League telecast topped all shows with a 7.3 rating.

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.