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Cable Ratings Sizzle This Summer

Despite playing in the most crowded field ever, cable networks are having their best summer yet with new and returning original scripted series.

Most shows are posting solid numbers for their networks, and cable in aggregate is outdrawing broadcast by the largest margin ever. Through July 24, the Big Four broadcast networks were posting a 26.1 household share, down 8% from a year ago, while cable pulled a 62.6 share, up slightly, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Most of the big cable networks' originals have been strong, with several breaking records and few truly bombing. On the strength of wrestling, high-performing new seasons of returning shows like Monk and Psych, and new originals, USA Network is the summer's ratings leader overall, with 2.7 million total viewers and 1.3 million in the 18-49 demo.

The network has tried staking out Thursdays, a night that cable previously ceded to broadcast. That has produced solid results: The Starter Wife miniseries averaged 4.5 million total viewers (2.4 million 18-49, 2.3 million 25-54), and new series Burn Notice has averaged 3.6 million (1.7 million 18-49, 1.9 million 25-54). USA will try to keep a Thursday toehold this fall when it offers new episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

TNT's third season of The Closer is cable's top individual show by far this summer. The five top ad-supported telecasts since the summer ratings season began on May 28 are all episodes of the show, which has averaged a huge 7.3 million total viewers over six episodes.

TNT also has an early hit in Holly Hunter original Saving Grace. The show premiered to 6.4 million viewers after the July 23 episode of The Closer, making it cable's third-most-viewed series premiere ever and the summer's second-most-viewed show.

Grace had Turner executives relieved since TNT's other new summer drama, Heartland, fizzled in its post-Closer time slot. The show premiered to 4.3 million viewers June 18 and dropped to 2.8 million before executives kicked it to the 8 p.m. time slot to give Grace a fighting chance behind The Closer.

After a rough patch, Lifetime scheduled three new scripted series on Sundays this summer, and the move paid off. Army Wives is the women's network strongest show ever, averaging 3.6 million viewers (1.7 million 18-49) with new episodes. The others, Side Order of Life and State of Mind, have averaged about 2 million each.

Elsewhere, FX and AMC shared a dilemma: Shows premiered to respectable total audiences that skewed old. AMC's July 19 Mad Men debut drew 1.6 million total viewers, 77% better than the network usually draws, but 65% (1.07 million) of its viewers were 50 and older.

FX's Damages debuted to a healthy 3.7 million viewers July 24. But only 33% (1.2 million) were adults 18-49, the network's target demo, and 61% were adults 50 and older. Spike fared better: The July 22 premiere of drama The Kill Point attracted 2.06 million total viewers, nearly 50% in the coveted 18-49 demo.