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Cable shares in summer surge

If the hype over Survivor made it sound as if cable were having a bad summer, the final numbers show that basic nets boasting about new programming were not forced to eat either rat or crow.

The bottom line is, because the broadcasters have stopped abandoning summer to cable networks loading up on fresh programming, people simply watch more television, bolstering both sides of the TV fence. Prime time homes using television (HUTs) increased 4% from May 29 to Sept. 3.

"It was a great summer for television," said Tim Brooks, senior vice president, research, at Lifetime. "Broadcasters got most of the ink and most of the credit, but viewing was up for both sides of the channel divide."

The bad news, however, is that, while the 40 basic cable networks collectively posted gains, the biggest ones saw declines. The top 10 saw their summer household ratings dip 3%.

Nielsen Media Research numbers show that the major broadcast networks reversed their steady audience losses of the past few summers, with household ratings increasing 6% for the Big Three. Throwing in the battered FOX, however, brings the Big Four gain to 3%.

Basic cable networks still posted a 6% gain, about the same level of growth they generated in the same period last year. Instead of the usual share-shifting, Survivor, Regis, and cable nets' wave of new series, such as TNT's Bull, and new episodes of old series simply kept Rollerbladers at home.

"The winner is obviously the viewer. A 3% increase in HUT is significant," says Bob Sieber, vice president, audience development, for Turner Broadcasting Systems. And there were more people in each home watching, so total viewers rose 5%.