Cable nips nets' Sunday

Broadcast networks looking over their shoulders at their cable rivals may be suffering from whiplash after some recent Sunday-night match-ups.

Taken together, HBO's The Sopranos, TNT's The Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Discovery Channel special Land of the Mammoth attracted a strong 17 million viewers on March 11, according to Nielsen Media Research.

It's true that the total is less than the combined firepower of some of the broadcast networks' top offerings, including ABC's Wonderful World of Disney: Princess of Thieves (10.1 million), NBC's original movie The Lost Empire: Part 1 (7.1 million) and Fox's The Lone Gunmen (9.0 million). But some network executives did feel cable's bite into their efforts.

Individually, The Sopranos grabbed 8.4 million viewers, just behind Lone Gunmen but squarely beating Lost Empire. Less attractive but still fairly healthy by cable standards were The SAG Awards (3.4 million) and Mammoth
(5.1 million). Both, starting at 8 p.m., easily topped UPN's XFL game (1.5 million).

An ABC spokesperson explained, "It definitely was a unique night. My kids were aware of the Mammoth," which started at 8 p.m. and ran against the last hour of ABC's kid-friendly Princess.

Also, a third airing of original movie The Luck of the Irish (2.5 million) continued to be a pot of gold for the Disney Channel. The film's premiere (5.1 million) was the most-watched program in Disney's history.

With HUT levels typical for the night, the ABC spokesperson suspected that cable's programming bonanza took away from some of the networks' efforts.

An NBC spokesperson agreed that Mammoth and SAG played a role in Lost Empire's unimpressive reach. But with lackluster reviews, a TV source pointed out, "it wasn't so much the competition as it was the show itself."

At Fox, there's got to be some grumblings about The Sopranos cutting into the network's high-profile X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen
. But Fox was rumored to have given Gunmen
producers the option of holding back the show until the beginning of summer, when there would be less competition, escaping at least the start of The Sopranos' season.

The X-Files will come back to the Sunday 9 p.m. slot starting April 1, with David Duchovny starring in the rest of the season's episodes, something that could give Sopranos a run for its money next month. Lone Gunmen goes to Fridays at 9 p.m. starting March 16.