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Feel the heat

Measuring a cable hit remains a wildly inexact science. Ratings certainly help shows make the grade, but even most unsuccessful broadcast shows remain exponentially more popular than cable's highest-rated shows. For cable, a show' s success still can be achieved with tiny ratings. Others start small and then take off.

For this year's list, BROADCASTING & CABLE talked to dozens of industry executives, media buyers and outside analysts.

There are some objective criteria for making this list: Each show demonstratively boosts the ratings, and each has had a measurable impact on the success of its network in attracting advertisers or new subscribers.

But the list also reflects intangible qualities like industry perceptions, media attention and the buzz that a show has generated. It isn't based simply on Nielsen ratings (given below for households), although many of the most popular shows on cable made the list. On the pages that follow are our picks.

Obviously hot

The Sopranos  HBO
Rating: 20.3 average HH for new season (in HBO universe)
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, even if the plot lines aren't as good. After a 16-month wait, new episodes of The Sopranos
are outrating its stunning popularity last season despite complaints from critics that the series is has lost some of its Mob tension: not enough whacking. In early episodes, viewers also missed actor Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), who has been sidelined by real-life cancer.

The Osbournes  MTV
Rating: 4.4 average HH The Osbournes is really a spin-off of another show, Cribs, MTV's version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. When Ozzy Osbourne opened his home to MTV's cameras, the family's banter and oddness resonated, so wife and business manager Sharon pitched a reality show. Drawn less by the metalhead's antics than by his attempts at being traditional father, audiences flocked to The Osbournes.

Monk  USA Network
Rating: 3.3 average HH
USA Network successfully gambled that its broad-based audience would accept a quirky detective drama. Now ABC would like to get its hands on the first window for Monk. USA Network President Doug Herzog staunchly says he's keeping the premiere play, but, if ABC makes a rich enough offer, USA could take the repurposed window for season two next summer.

The Shield  FX
Rating: 2.8 average HH
Advertiser defections and a flap over questionable content earned The Shield  buzz, but star Michael Chiklis's Emmy Award, basic cable's first major win at the ceremony, has firmly established the show. With season two coming in January, FX could tone down the show to lure advertisers back. But, as with NYPD Blue, if more viewers embrace the show's gritty style, advertisers will likely relax.
Out of almost nowhere

Six Feet Under  HBO
Rating: 11.0 average HH (in HBO universe)
The drama, which garnered 23 Emmy nominations and six awards this year, was initially seen by network executives as less promising than the sports sitcom Arli$$. But, when Six Feet Under  premiered on a Sunday in 2001, HBO soon noticed that audience levels for Sex & the City  dropped off during Arli$$  and bounced back for Six Feet Under. HBO executives, who claim not to be held hostage to ratings, quickly moved Six Feet  up from 10 p.m. ET to 9:30 p.m.

The Dead Zone  USA Network
Rating: 3.1 average HH
UPN originally developed the show, but USA Network President Doug Herzog gave it a shot. When Dead Zone  jumped out with strong ratings, Herzog could boast his first hit as head of USA. The series performed well in repeats on sister net Sci Fi and will be back for season two in January.

The Anna Nicole Show  E! Entertainment Television
Rating: 2.1 average HH
Anna Nicole's 4.1 debut rating came as a relief for E! President Mindy Herman. If the show hit a 5.0 rating, she had promised staffers, she would sport an Anna Nicole tattoo. After the show's first week, millions of viewers fled, but Anna Nicole  is still E!'s highest-rated show and its first hit in years. Herman has a hit but no tattoo.

Trading Spaces  TLC
Rating: 2.4 average HH (Q3 2002, Saturday 9 p.m. run)
Sometimes the best ideas for cable originals aren't exactly original. TLC's biggest show was originally licensed from the BBC show Changing Rooms
and stuffed into a fringe part of the network's schedule. But, as its audience grew, TLC started popping new episodes into prime time, making a big ratings score with programming that cost only $90,000 an episode.

Justice League  Cartoon Network
Rating: 1.6 average HH
Cartoon Network resurrected popular DC Comics characters like Harvey Birdman for this late-night original show. Cartoon's highest-rated show, it anchors the late-night Adult Swim block, aimed at attracting more young adults—and new advertisers—to the kid's net. (In January, Cartoon expands to Sunday through Thursday, from just Sundays.

Forensic Files  Court TV
Rating: 1.1 average HH
Court TV programming chief Art Bell was certain the network needed a show based on forensic investigations. Turns out, both his instincts and timing were stellar. Though developed earlier, the show arrived just as drama CSI
put the genre on the map. Forensic Files
is so strong that NBC is repurposing the $125,000-an-episode show, in exchange for a small license fee and some Court TV promo spots, which have juiced Court TV's ratings even higher.
Old faithfuls

Sunday Night Football  ESPN
Rating: 7.86 average HH for first seven games
Football is giving ESPN a rosy fall glow. This season, football ratings are up 30%, and the network finished September with cable's highest prime time average: 2.2. After football, ESPN's flagship highlight show SportsCenter
triples its usual Nielsen marks.

Law & Order  TNT
Rating: 2.2 average HH
TNT is paying twice what A&E used to for reruns of Law & Order  and—luckily—grabbing bigger ratings. TNT is ponying up $800,000 each for recent episodes and $250,000 each for those that aired on A&E, a hefty jump from the $150,000 A&E paid per show. Law and Order's established fan base has dutifully moved to TNT, helping lift TNT's prime time ratings 20% in September alone.

The O'Reilly Factor  Fox News
Rating: 1.9 average HH
Fox News' bombastic Bill O'Reilly proves you can build a network on the back of a hit show. The highest-rated cable news show has certainly helped make Fox the most-watched cable news outlet and has remained strong despite attempts by CNN and MSNBC to lure viewers away with Connie Chung and Phil Donahue.

Spongebob SquarePants  Nickelodeon
Rating: 3.1 average HH
College kids made Spongebob  what it is today. During the show's first season, in 1999, Nick ran the initial 16 episodes Saturdays at 9 a.m. Ratings were just average, but the network received an unusual volume of e-mail from 20ish fans looking to buy Spongebob T-shirts and the like. Nickelodeon execs scheduled some second-season episodes (at $500,000 per) in prime time. The result: big Nielsens and merchandising revenue. (It's also a gay cult hit.)

The Division  Lifetime
Rating: 2.5 average HH (for season two)
One of Lifetime's hit Sunday-night dramas, The Division  returns in January, for its third season, with Ripley's Believe It or Not  hunky host Dean Cain as a guest star. The show averaged a 2.2 rating in repeats, helping Lifetime break even on production costs. Like broadcast networks, Lifetime orders 22 episodes of its original dramas; more cautious channels stick to 13.

NASCAR Winston Cup Races  FX and TNT
Rating: 4.3 average HH on FX; 4.7 HH on TNT (through seven races)
Imagine that every pro baseball team negotiated a contract for a couple of games a season. That's pretty much what NASCAR was like, with track owners cutting rights deals. In 2000, though, the racing association consolidated all the racing rights, holding a single negotiation and giving NASCAR far greater leverage. The result: more-consistent promotion and packaging, and sharply higher ratings.

Rating: 4.4 average HH
It's amusing that a weekly show clocking a 4.0-plus Nielsen household rating on TNN is considered fading. World Wrestling Entertainment's ratings are down from the lofty 6.0 level a few years, so impresario Vince McMahon is dancing furiously to revive the franchise. The latest: hints of necrophilia by "evil" wrestler Triple H. (Hey, Vince, the show's fading, not dead.)

The Daily Show   Comedy Central
Rating: 0.7 average HH
The Daily Show's
audience may be niche, but Jon Stewart's cachet keeps growing. The show earned three Emmy nods this year, including Best Host and Best Show. Rival programmers admire the show because its on-brand and entertaining—the ingredients for a cable hit. Stewart now delights viewers abroad with The Daily Show Global Edition, a weekly offering on corporate cousin CNN International.