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Cable Stretches Lead

Shaped by precipitous losses on the broadcast front, the 2006-07 TV season is in the books. In aggregate, the results were decidedly in basic cable’s corner.

Ad-supported cable networks notched a 54.0 share of households watching television in primetime from Sept. 18, 2006 to May 23, 2007. That was up from a 53.1 share in the 2005-06 season and gave the younger medium an 11.8 share-point edge over broadcast for the year. Broadcast registered a 42.2 share this year, down from a 44.6 share last season, according to a Turner analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

Broadcast first fell behind cable among primetime households during the 2002-03 season.

Cable’s lead also grew wider among adults 18 to 49, the group most coveted by advertisers. Cable claimed a 5.3 share-point lead during the most recently completed season. Cable upped its take to a 43.5 from a 41.3, while broadcast declined 2.5 points to a 38.2 share. Cable had only assumed the top spot with this key demographic during the 2004-05 season, when its 41.5 share edged broadcast’s 41.0.

Overall, 1.7 million fewer households watched broadcast TV during primetime, according to the analysis. That total included seven days worth of “time-shifted” viewing, via recordings. Still, the loss of households was the largest for broadcast networks since the six-network landscape emerged during the 1995-96 season, according to Turner Broadcasting System chief research officer Jack Wakshlag.

Wakshlag said broadcast lost the equivalent of an entire market’s worth of viewers this past season. “It’s like everyone in Seattle turned off broadcast,” he said, pegging that medium’s household decline at 2.7 million when measured on a live basis.

With adults 18 to 49, broadcast lost 2.5 million live watchers and 1.5 million, when counting live viewing and seven-days of time-shifted viewing, according to the Turner analysis.

Wakshlag said the breadth and depth of cable’s varied network fare took their toll and that broadcast suffered from “a weak development season.”

Whereas he gauged “hit” broadcast shows as having a 6 rating among adults 18 to 49 five years ago, Wakschlag, accounting for the increasingly fragmented television world, has reduced that standard to a 4 mark against that demo. He said that only five shows, NBC’s Heroes, Fox’s Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader, ABC’s October Road and Brothers and Sisters and CBS’s Rules of Engagement made that grade in the 2006-07 season.

“Out of 46 new shows, that’s a .109 batting average,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the broadcast community has a somewhat different vantage of the Nielsen watch.

The Television Bureau of Advertising’s analysis of the just-completed season indicated that broadcast captured 348 of the top 349 series installments, specials and other programs, among all viewing households. Pulling an 8.2 national average rating, ESPN’s National Football League game coverage was the only program to break through at No. 76. To include the top-10 subscription TV programs in households, TVB said the list needed to extend to No. 504, meaning broadcast landed 494 of the top 504 programs of the season.

The story was similar among the 18 to 49 crowd, as ESPN’s Monday Night Football games finished No. 52. To complete a top 10, the list had to go to No. 449, according to the TVB analysis.

“These findings demonstrate once again that broadcast dominates the television landscape,” said TVB president Chris Rohrs in a statement. “The top-rated cable programs have ratings so small that they would be cancelled if they were on a broadcast outlet.”

Added TVB spokesman Gary Belis: “Advertisers don’t buy aggregate numbers and viewers don’t watch aggregate shows. Advertisers buy programs and viewers watch shows. That’s the way we look at things.”

Looking ahead to summer, cable will unleash an array of original series, specials and movies. Broadcast, by its own standard, will rely more on reruns, alternative fare and new fresh dramas.

Last summer, cable grabbed a 62.1 primetime household share, versus 31.1 for broadcast. The gap wasn’t quite that big among adults 18 to 49: 51.0 to a 27.5, according to Nielsen data.

“Cable beat broadcast two to one last summer, and we’re poised for another record run,” said Wakshlag.