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In June, TNT and Fox Explode

What a difference a year makes. Last spring, Lifetime handily captured the second-quarter ratings crown. But this year—thanks largely to more NBA playoff games on cable and heavy news viewing during the Iraq war—TNT and Fox News surged to the top of ad-supported cable, charging past other top-tier networks.

On the whole, the second quarter was very good for cable. Despite May sweeps and more original fare on broadcast last month, cable attracted a larger share of viewers than the seven broadcast networks, a 51 share for ad-supported cable vs. a 44 share for broadcast.

"Broadcasters made a lot of noise about reclaiming the summer," said Lifetime's head of research Tim Brooks, "but so far their attempts have been middling at best."

This is the second straight year that cable has bested broadcast in the second quarter. Last year, cable collected a 50 share to broadcast's 45.

Leading the cable pack was TNT, which averaged a robust 2.2 prime time rating, up 28% from last year, and 2.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. TNT swept all three key demographic groups. Its NBA playoffs averaged a strong 3.4 million viewers, but, the Turner net says, it would have been tops in total viewers, adults 18-49 and adults 25-54 even without pro basketball.

"It is fair to say the torch has been passed to TNT as ad-supported cable's leader," says Turner Senior Vice President of Entertainment Research Jon Marks.

The handoff he refers to comes from Lifetime Television, the ratings queen last year and something of a falling star this year. Its second-quarter ratings are off 19% to a 1.7 household average and 1.7 million viewers. The situation improved slightly last month; Lifetime's June prime time marks increased to a 1.8. And two new original dramas debuting in early August could lend some support.

Lifetime wasn't the only broad-based cable net to shed viewers. TBS Superstation's ratings were off 24% from a year ago, and USA Network, FX and Discovery were all down slightly.

But the opposite was true for several established niche networks, which saw ratings rise.

The best example was Fox News Channel. The news net has managed to retain many of its war-time spoils. Fox saw ratings surge 91% in the second quarter, to a 2.0 average rating, and attracted an average 2.1 million viewers. Even in recent weeks, as Fox's marks receded to more earthly levels—around 1.4 is a typical draw—the losses are less severe than rival CNN's.

CNN's second-quarter ratings grew 50% from last year's 0.8 average in prime, but, in recent weeks, ratings have slipped to pre-war levels.

Among entertainment niche nets, TLC (1.1 rating), Court TV (0.9 rating) and Sci Fi Channel (0.9 rating) posted strong Nielsen marks. Disney Channel surged to a 1.7 average in prime.