Cable’s Summer Slam

With just two weeks left in its high season, basic cable is on track to notch its fifth straight summer ratings triumph over broadcast, winning by its largest margin ever. From the beginning of summer through Aug. 15, cable averaged a 60.9 share to broadcast’s 32.4. That’s compared with a 58.1/34.6 split last year.

Cable’s summer task, beyond producing new hits, is to use those shows to create viewer loyalty. That way, viewers keep tuning in when the big boys in broadcast come out swinging with new fall series. Turner’s TNT, for example, has laid out plans to ride its summer ratings wave into fall. The network grew 16% over last summer in prime, averaging 2.9 million total viewers through Aug. 15 (and 1.21 million in 18-49)—the most of any basic-cable network.

That was due to a record-breaking ratings draw in The Closer and a second original hit in Wanted, along with successful Friday-Sunday scheduling of its $100 million limited series Into the West. TNT also buffeted its originals with acquired series and movies, such as Saving Private Ryan and Jurassic Park III, that fit into the drama niche it has carved out over the past few years.

“Cable Made a Lot of Fans”

The network will keep its summer characters top of mind by weaving them into promotional spots that will run throughout the year. It will also run Wanted into the fall, luring viewers into the premieres of three new acquired dramas: Alias, Cold Case and Las Vegas.

“Cable made a lot of fans this summer, not only eyeballs,” says TNT/TBS Executive VP/COO Steve Koonin. “We’re not only open three months a year.”

Lifetime also triumphed this summer, notching a 9% increase in total viewership over last summer with an average 1.81 million viewers in prime, 723,000 of those 18-49. Because the women’s network scored largely through Monday-night original movies (including Murder in the Hamptons and The Dive From Clausen’s Pier), Lifetime aims to hold viewers through the fall season with more flicks. It will pack early September with not only more Monday movies but some Sunday ones, too, sometimes preempting original dramas.

“We’re delivering on a promise we’ve made as a network to deliver a certain type of genre,” says Tim Brooks, executive VP of research at Lifetime. “You come back to the network, not the programming.”

Finding a Branding Niche

But not all basic-cable networks saw gains. USA, summer’s second-most-viewed, dipped 10% in prime from last year, averaging 2.3 million total viewers (1.07 million 18-49). Although the network brought back hit dramas Monk, The Dead Zone and The 4400, it still seems to be finding its branding niche. In July, USA introduced a new logo and slogan “Characters Welcome,” and it will drive home the catchphrase going into fall, with promos for U.S. Open tennis running in August and September, and WWE’s Monday Night Raw, which returns to USA in October after a five-year absence.

FX also dropped in the ratings, losing 8% of total viewers from last year, with an average 1.17 million in prime (681,000 in 18-49) this summer. Returning favorite Rescue Me performed well, but new comedies Starved and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, as well as Iraq-war drama Over There, saw dwindling audiences each week. FX will promote Nip/Tuck’s September return with promos that will run in three of the five commercial breaks during each hour-long episode of Over There, and graphics bugs for Nip during the credits.

Summer: TNT triumphed in the ratings with originals, including The Closer.

Fall: Turner’s drama network begins running a trio of new acquired shows, including Alias.

Summer: Lifetime scored with original movies, including Murder in the Hamptons.

Fall: The women’s network keeps flicks going with Human Trafficking Oct. 24.

Summer: USA’s originals, including Monk, performed, but the network dipped 10% in prime.

Fall: Newly rebranded, the network brings back WWE on Oct. 3.