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Cable Wins Big in 2004

Score another victory for cable. For the third year in a row, ad-supported cable networks as an aggregate roped in a bigger share of the TV audience than broadcasters. Cable enjoyed an all-time high 52.7 share compared to the seven broadcast networks’ 43.1, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Credit compelling programming, strong marketing and hot off-broadcast shows with fueling cable’s fire. For the first time, cable outshone the broadcast networks during November sweeps, with a 51.5 share to broadcast’s 46.6.

“The end of an era is an important thing to be able to say,” says Turner’s chief research officer, Jack Wakshlag. “Unless something extraordinary happens, broadcast networks will not win another sweeps.”

While any one broadcast network’s ratings still clobber any individual cable network, breakout hits on cable now command audience numbers that rival broadcast. For example, a whopping 12.1 million viewers tuned in to ESPN to watch the Ravens/Colts football game on Dec. 19, more than any other cable program for the year. Here is a look at cable’s highs—and occasional lows—for 2004.

Big Winners:

The top five networks in prime were TNT, USA, ESPN, Nickelodeon and TBS. Although original episodes of the Law & Order franchise have been floundering on NBC, reruns are going strong on USA and TNT, which rebranded itself as a home for drama. The networks averaged 2.3 million and 2.5 million viewers in prime, respectively.

Comeback Kids:

Once Disney’s cable conundrum, ABC Family was up 33%, averaging 1 million viewers in prime under new chief Paul Lee by relying on off-net hits, including Gilmore Girls and Smallville. AMC was up 11%, averaging 950,000 viewers in prime; airing original series and newer classics proved a success. Cartoon Network had its best year yet with kids and boys 6-11 in total daytime and prime.

Small Triumphs:

The Hallmark Channel was up 42%, averaging 718,000 viewers in prime, largely owing to the success of its original movies—A Boyfriend for Christmas earned the network its most-viewed day ever when it premiered Nov. 27, averaging 760,000 viewers. Sci Fi was up 7% in prime for the year, and its Stargate Atlantis ranked in the top 10 new original cable series.

Notable Slips:

Proving that even mega-hits can fall from grace, Trading Spaces continued to lose steam on TLC, leaving the network down 23% in prime. Lifetime was also down 6% in prime. Struggling with staff restructuring after Mindy Herman resigned and new E! President Ted Harbert took the reins, the network was down 10% in prime. Animal Planet was down 11%.

Strong Showings:

Spike TV boosted its prime time ratings 13% in 2004 with great numbers for CSI. Comedy Central was up 29% in prime, nearly reaching the 1 million viewer mark at 916,000, thanks to power performers like South Park and Chappelle’s Show. USA was up 21% in prime with total viewers; ESPN rose 8%.

Huge Returns:

The 2004 Video Music Awards on MTV was the only non-football program to crack the top-five shows, with 10.3 million viewers on Aug. 29. Fox News’ coverage on election night earned the network its biggest ratings night yet, with 8.1 million viewers, more than tripling its numbers from election 2000 and nipping at CBS, which scored 9.5 million with its coverage.

Rookie Stars:

Several frosh cable programs posted big numbers. Key among them: The 4400 (2.9 million viewers 18-49, USA), The Real Gilligan’s Island (2.0 million,18-49, TBS) and Rescue Me (1.9 million,18-49, FX). FX continued to establish itself as a basic-cable rival to HBO with creative original fare: Plastic-surgery soap Nip/Tuck nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Drama.

Day in, day out:

For the ninth year in a row, the big winner in total day viewing was Nickelodeon, averaging 2 million total viewers a day in 2004—up 4% from 2003. The network successfully launched its new TEENick block, featuring Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide and Unfabulous, and beefed up its Nick Jr. schedule with LazyTown, The Backyardigans and Dora the Explorer.