Cable Ratings Rock Broadcast In 2008

Boosts from Olympic gold-medal winner Michael Phelps and a history-making presidential race aside, the broadcast networks still suffered a relentless loss of viewership in 2008.

In 2008, the Big Four broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — saw their primetime share of household viewing drop 6%, to a 32.7 from a 34.9 in 2007, despite the benefit of having the Summer Olympics in Beijing and a history-making presidential election race, according to a Turner Broadcasting System analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

In contrast to broadcast’s decline, ad-supported cable continued its ratings-growth march, with its primetime share up 3% in 2008, which concluded on Dec. 28 by Nielsen’s calendar, versus 2007, at 59.2 compared with 57.2, according to Turner.

“Overall, the story’s been consistent now for the last few years,” said Mike Greco, Lifetime Television’s executive vice president of research. “The broadcast networks continue to shed share points. It’s happening across all the demos, and cable is really picking that up.”

In fact, six broadcasters grouped together — the Big Four, along with The CW and MyNetworkTV — have lost 1.5 million households in primetime season to date. That’s the equivalent of the No. 19 TV market — Orlando — according to Wakshlag.

As cable viewership increased, the larger cable outlets saw gains. The No. 1 cable network in primetime, USA Network, and the winner in total day, Nickelodeon, both shattered cable-viewership records in 2008.

“The big are getting bigger,” said Turner chief research officer Jack Wakshlag.

USA, with a 2.2 household rating — a 5% increase over 2007 — averaged 2.86 million total viewers in 2008 in primetime, according to a Disney ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, a record for cable.

The "characters" network was followed in primetime by Disney Channel, with a 1.9 rating, a 14% decrease. In 2007, Disney had been in the primetime’s top spot, beating USA by a whisker to take the ratings crown. This year, the tables were turned.

TNT was third with a 1.8 household average, followed by Fox News Channel and ESPN, both with a 1.7. TBS was next at a 1.5, then Nick at Nite at a 1.4, trailed by Hallmark Channel and Lifetime, each with a 1.2 mark. Rounding out the top 10 were A&E Network, Cartoon Network and CNN, all with a 1.1 average.

For total day in 2008 Nick was No. 1 and averaged a 1.7 household rating, a 6% dip, and set a record in total day for viewers, with 2.2 million. It was followed in second place by sister service Nick at Nite, with a 1.3 rating for an 18% gain.

“We [Nickelodeon] had our most-watched year in total day with people 2-plus,” said Cyma Zarghami, president of the Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group. “The story truly is we are not cannibalizing ourselves, obviously. As each one of our parts does better, we’re taking more and more share out of the marketplace.”

The Nick TV empire snared a big piece of kids’ viewing in 2008. The Nickelodeon Kids and Family Group’s TV properties — Nickelodeon, Noggin, The N and Nicktoons Network — collectively represented 47% of all viewing for kids 2 to 11 in 2008.

“One of the things we set out to do is really weave all of our parts together,” Zarghami said.

While some of the top cable networks were flat in terms of household ratings growth, for the year 37 cable networks (as of Dec. 7) had had their best primetime numbers ever in the 18-to-49 demographic, according to Wakshlag.

“The good news is that so far we haven’t seen the top cable networks go the way the broadcast networks have gone,” Greco said. “It’s not like the top networks are really eroding. … The point is, the wealth is spread.”

In its fourth season, TNT’s The Closer remained the No. 1 ad-supported cable series of the season and of all time. USA’s In Plain Sight took bragging honors as the No. 1 new cable series of 2008.

“People are really going to where the best programming is on, and it’s really leveling the playing field,” Greco said.

In terms of specific demographics, Nick at Nite took first place in total day among adults 18 to 49 last year. The off-network sitcom George Lopez has been a huge surprise success for Nick at Nite at 10 p.m., as the network is up 50% in that demo compared with the same time period in 2007, according to Nielsen data from Nick.

Nickelodeon last year enjoyed ratings success with animated fare such as The Fairly OddParents, as well as The Naked Brothers Band and iCarly, followed up by the headway George Lopez made, according to Zarghami.

“The real icing on the cake was the success of George Lopez in primetime,” she said. “So for the first time in a long time we really had it going on across the board at exactly the same time. … Kids love George Lopez, and adults are finding George Lopez through their kids.”

Lifetime was No. 1 in total day in 2008 for women 25 to 54 for the third consecutive year, and has seen nine consecutive months of growth among women 18 to 49. In fact, the women’s network has succeeded in driving down its median age.

“Our goal was to get a little bit younger, be a little more relevant and current,” Greco said. “And we actually shed over a full year on our median age. We went from 48.7 to a 47.4 (for total day).”