Cable Sweeps Up

Basic cable toppled another one of the television industry’s bastions, winning the November sweeps period over its seven broadcast competitors for the first time.

After narrowly missing out in the November 2003 sweeps (Oct. 31 to Nov. 26) — when it averaged a 30.0 household rating to broadcast’s 30.6 — ad-supported cable networks posted a collective household rating of 32.2 from Nov. 4 to Nov. 30, versus a 29.2 mark for the broadcasters. That’s according to a Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

Cable also deposed its older competitor with a 51.6 share, compared to a 46.7 mark for the seven networks. And cable delivered 35.3 million households on average in primetime, compared with just over 32 million for the broadcast networks.

“Whether February, May or November, cable’s ratings growth continues during sweeps periods,” CAB president Sean Cunningham said, before citing a remark he said came from an ad agency executive: “ 'Cable never sleeps.’ Day in, day out, week in, week out, viewers tune to cable, even when broadcast makes a concentrated effort to put its best programming forward in a compact schedule.”

Said Lifetime Entertainment Services executive vice president of research Tim Brooks: “This is the next wave in the tide that keeps rolling over broadcast. It will be this season or next when cable wins every month.”

According to the CAB analysis, CBS again won the total viewer race and left NBC and the others in its wake as it moved to the fore in terms of reaching the Madison Avenue-coveted adults 18 to 49.

But ABC was the only broadcast network to actually pick up viewers during the sweeps period. “For the broadcasters, it’s become a matter of losing the least viewers month to month and now in the sweeps,” said Cunningham.

Brooks said that while broadcasters are still grabbing big audiences for hit shows like ABC’s Desperate Housewives and Lost and CBS’s CSI franchise, they can’t offset the breadth and depth of cable programming.

To that end, cable’s strength was evidenced by the fact that only one of the top 10 networks saw its ratings decline during the month of November, he said. Cable made gains across all demographic groups, Cunningham added.


Despite a double-digit drop, ESPN led basic cable in primetime during November. The total sports network averaged a 2.2 household rating from Nov. 1 through Nov. 28, according to a Disney ABC Networks Group analysis of data, off 12% from the 2.5 ESPN tallied in November 2003.

TNT was second for the month, notching an 11% increase to a 2.0 average. USA Network, ahead 6%, and Fox News Channel, which grew 58%, were tied for fourth with a 1.9.

Fox News’s growth was sparked by its coverage of the presidential election, as well as the strength of its schedule as a whole: In ringing up its highest numbers since its coverage of the Iraq War in March and April 2003, it aired the 11 highest-rated news shows on cable in November.

Cable News Network and MSNBC also fared well during the news-heavy period, posting a 0.9 (up 13%) and 0.4 (up 33%), respectively, in primetime.

Back in the top 10, Nick at Nite earned a 1.7 household ratings to finish fifth, ahead of Lifetime (up 7%), Cartoon (up 7%) and Disney Channel (down 6%), all of which punched in with a 1.6 mark in primetime.

Rounding out the top 10 were TBS, flat at a 1.5; and Spike TV, buoyed by its weeknight strip of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation at 8 p.m., which registered a 56% jump to a 1.4 average.

Gauged on a total programming day basis, Nickelodeon, ahead 6%, was the runaway leader with a 1.9 household average, even though TNT and Cartoon both grew 9% to a 1.2.

Fox News (57%), Lifetime (even) and Disney (off 8%) were next, each with a 1.1, according to the Disney ABC Cable Group analysis.


Assessing the November primetime landscape, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. chief research officer Jack Wakshlag pointed to Spike’s strength with CSI. That show has brought a considerable number of female viewers to the male-targeted service, he noted. He also said Lifetime’s 9 p.m. movie franchise is paying dividends, particularly among younger adult females, while USA is showing improvement among adults 18 to 34 and 18 to 49.

“FX is also doing well with Fear Factor and King of the Hill, which are strongly outperforming the movies they replaced,” he said.

Wakshlag also talked up the performances of some of Turner’s own channels: Cartoon Network had its best-ever November total-day performances among kids 2 to 11 and kids 6 to 11, while TBS has become the leading network in primetime among adults 18 to 34, since going to its “Very Funny” rebranding effort on June 4.