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Cable survived Survivor

This summer's broadcast blitzkrieg barely bruised cable. Despite the fascination with Survivor and Big Brother on CBS; despite the continuing power of ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?; and despite a relatively quiet news season, cable held fast this summer. Like last year, about 45% of the TV-viewing audience tuned in to ad-supported cable networks this summer, according to Nielsen Media Research data. Like last year, around 51% tuned into the broadcast networks.

That's not to say cable emerged completely unscathed. Slice the numbers a little smaller and the impact of cable's battle with broadcast becomes evident. Cable networks lost about one-tenth of a rating point (a rating point being roughly equal to 1 million households), while broadcast gained four-tenths. Broadcast executives have thus proclaimed the end of audience erosion, but the conclusion may be premature. Cable networks were up against more than just a national fetish for voyeurism and quick riches.

"There were no hurricanes to draw people to The Weather Channel," said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research at Horizon Media in New York. "There was no home-run derby between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that created interest on ESPN. There was no stock-market madness creating business news. Those things didn't happen this year. Even in the conventions, people knew in March who was running against each other. All that affected cable's flatness."

There were also no major shows launched on broadcast networks last summer. This year, the introductions of Survivor and Big Brother stepped all over cable's traditional launch season. Both shows are doing double-digit ratings. Cable held its ground with blockbuster movie premieres and wrestling, but few of the nearly 50 new shows launched on the major cable networks this summer are reaching a 2 rating.

It's hard enough for cable networks to get attention for new shows under the best circumstances. If broadcasters with their massive marketing capacity make a habit of summer launches, life becomes even more complicated for cable-programming executives looking for a suitable timeslot for something no one's ever heard of.

"The most cluttered time is September, October and November.but you can imagine a day when all the holes get closed by everybody. You just have to shout smarter, longer and better," said Stephen Chao, president of USA Cable. Chao launched three series this summer: The War Next Door, Manhattan AZ and The Huntress. All three shows have been praised by critics, but they still draw fewer people than repeated repeats of Walker Texas Ranger.

VH1 has had a heavy launch slate this year, with four new shows and a Wednesday-night movie franchise premiering this summer alone. Overall, VH1's prime time is up slightly from last year, largely on the strength of the movies. Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back and Daydream Believers: The Monkees Story helped pull up the 18-49 demographic by 54% on Wednesday nights. Of the four series-Don't Quote Me, Sound Affects, VH1 Confidential and Rock's Greatest 100-none have hit ratings pay dirt. But Jeff Gaspin, executive vice president of programming and production, isn't rethinking the summer launch strategy.

"I still think it's still the best time for cable," he said. "We have a lot of audience that's 18-to-24, and that's when they're home. I think we'll launch throughout the year, as we always do, but January and summer are still the best."

Meanwhile, Gaspin's counterpart at MTV is steering away from summer launches, a trend the network ironically set fire to with the blazing popularity of Real World, which launched in the summer of 1991. Brian Graden, president of programming at MTV, launched only one new animated series this summer. Spy Groove, a half-hour cartoon appearing every other night, is tracking around a 0.8 for the network.