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Cable Nips a Sweeps Win

Broadcast’s last bastion of primetime viewership dominance was smashed last month as basic cable — for the first time — garnered a greater share than the seven over-the-air networks during a February sweeps period.

After narrowly falling short last year (Feb. 5 to March 3, 2004), when it averaged a 48.1 share compared to broadcast’s 49.4, ad-supported cable saw its share increase 2.7% to a 49.4 from Feb. 3 through March 2.

Over the same span, broadcast networks declined 1.4% to a 48.7, according to a Lifetime Television analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.


On a household-ratings basis, basic cable averaged a 31.1 during the recently completed sweeps period, up 3.3% from a 30.1 in the 2004 period. Broadcast remained flat with a 30.9 mark. Cable’s win in the sweeps, when broadcast networks present more high-profile programming to help their affiliates raise local ad rates, came despite facing three major events — Super Bowl XXXIX (Fox), the Academy Awards (ABC) and the Grammy Awards (CBS) — that aired during the same period for the first time.

“Last year, February was the only month the broadcasters won, and now that has fallen to cable as well,” Lifetime executive vice president of research Tim Brooks said. “Cable’s strength in original programming, its ability to build loyalty in network brands and its success in taking over broadcast network shows like CSI and Law & Order really gives viewers everything they want.”

February proved to be a strong ratings month for most of basic-cable’s top 10 networks. Headed by Turner Network Television, seven posted gains, while two lost primetime ground.

The drama network set the pace overall with a 2.2 household rating average from Jan. 31 through Feb. 27, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen data, a 5% jump from the 2.1 it recorded last February (Jan. 26 to Feb. 29, 2004).

USA Network, which was down 10%, was second with a 1.9 average, ahead of Nick at Nite’s 1.8. (The retro sitcom purveyor had not been spun off from sister network and channel-sharer Nickelodeon until the second quarter of 2004.)

Disney Channel was fourth, matching its 1.7 household mark from the year-earlier period, while Cartoon Network improved 14% to a 1.6.


Rounding out the top 10 were Lifetime Television, up 7% to a 1.5; Fox News Channel, ahead 17%, and TBS, off 7%, both to a 1.4; and ESPN and Spike TV, which grew 9% and 33%, respectively, each with a 1.2.

TNT’s coverage of the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 20 was the highest-rated basic cable show for the month, averaging a 6.0 household rating, down from a 6.2 mark for the 2004 event. Although setting the pace for cable last month with nearly 8.1 million viewers 2-plus, the 2005 contest was the lowest-rated in the game’s history.

The National Football League’s all-star game, the Pro Bowl, tackled a 5.1 rating for ESPN on Feb. 13 to finish second for the month. Other programs in the top 10: Pre-game coverage before the NBA All-Star contest; Fox News’s coverage of President Bush’s State of the Union address; Comedy Central’s special Blue Collar Comedy Tour Rides Again; an installment of USA Network’s Monk; and several episodes of Spike’s presentation of WWE Raw.

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.