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Lifetime thrives despite news frenzy

Even the biggest news story in years couldn't displace Lifetime Television from the top of the quarterly cable ratings.

Lifetime finished first among basic cable nets during the third quarter, averaging a 2.1 rating in prime, according to Turner Entertainment Research analysis of Nielsen numbers released Tuesday. It was the third straight quarter that Television for Women topped the cable Nielsens.

Lifetime was followed by the usual cast of entertainment nets, TBS, USA, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, which all tied for the quarter's second spot with an average 1.7 rating.

The Sept. 11 attacks and ensuing wall-to-wall coverage propelled CNN and Fox News Channel into the top 10 for the first quarter this year.

Lifetime's Sunday night dramas and original movies routinely produced high ratings throughout July, August and September.

"We've tried to fashion a schedule that's very consistent, as opposed to having one or two very strong programs that pull up a schedule and fall down elsewhere," said Lifetime's head of research Tim Brooks.

As anticipated, the biggest ratings growth came from the cable news nets. CNN averaged a 1.2 for the quarter, up 100% from the same period last year, while Fox News' ratings grew 120% to a 1.1 average. MSNBC, which trailed its competitors, also saw its ratings improve 75%, up to a 0.7.

September ratings, which also were released Tuesday, confirmed that the cable news drought has - at least for now - been eradicated. CNN led all cable nets in prime time with a 2.0 average, while Fox News cracked the top ten with a 1.5 average. MSNBC tied the Discovery Channel and bested MTV with a 1.1 average. Lifetime finished second for the month, with a 1.9 average.

CNN's lead over Fox News' has waned in the weeks since the terror attacks. Industry execs say CNN's breaking news strength gave it a clear advantage early on, but Fox News' specialty - commentary and chatter --- have helped narrow the gap.

Entertainment networks have seen their ratings dip between 5-10% since the attacks, according to Lifetime's Brooks. The combination of the Sept. 11th attacks and the broadcast network season premieres have made this year's erosion more pronounced. Entertainment net execs say their audiences will grow as viewers seek refuge from news and after they finish sampling broadcasters.

But MSNBC president Erik Sorenson is confident cable news channels will continue to draw higher-than-normal audiences.

"We don't know if it's [a U.S. response] is going to happen today, next Tuesday, or a month from Tuesday," Sorenson said. "It creates a natural suspense that matters to people. It's not contrived suspense, it's real uncertainty." - Allison Romano

Allison Romano