This summer, cable networks hit a double, outpacing broadcast networks in primetime viewership by a 2-to-1 margin.
From late May through August, ad-supported cable networks snared a 62.1 share of primetime household viewing, compared to a 31.1 share for broadcast networks, according to a Turner Broadcasting System Inc. analysis of Nielsen Media Research data released last week.
This summer marked the first time cable enjoyed twice the primetime viewership of broadcast. Cable networks' share was at a record high; broadcast networks' summer viewership at a record low.
Last year, cable's share of primetime viewership beat broadcast, with a 61.1 versus a 32.0.
The medium's performance is expected to give it strong momentum going into the fall.
“Overall, it bodes very well for cable, because whenever you're coming off a strong summer, you normally narrow your lead over the broadcasters in the fall as well,” said Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television's executive vice president of research. “I would suspect, given this 2-to-1 summer, that cable again would have even a stronger September than it did last year.”
One of this summer's twists is that several returning cable shows — such as TNT's The Closer and USA Network's Monk — performed even better than in their prior seasons.
Season to date, The Closer is averaging a 5.5 rating, a full ratings point more than its 4.5 first-season average last year.
“We're finding it's becoming more usual [for shows to see ratings growth after their first season],” said Jack Wakshlag, Turner's chief research officer. “With more fragmentation than ever going on, it takes longer for shows to be found. So this show [The Closer] in its second season is being found.”
In fact, this season The Closer — in terms of households and overall viewers — is the most-watched original series in the history of ad-supported cable, according to Wakshlag. The procedural cop show has been averaging 6.6 million viewers.
USA's hit Monk averaged a 4.2 rating this summer. The ratings Monk and The Closer garnered this summer show how far cable has come, said Brooks, since it used to be that “the height for cable, kind of the ceiling, was a rating in the 2.5, 3.0 range.”
To its benefit, cable networks faced less competition from new broadcast shows this summer. The broadcasters debuted 11 new shows, while cable launched 56, according to Brooks. In previous summers, broadcast launched about 20 shows and cable about 50.
“I didn't realize that the broadcasters had cut back so much [this year],” Brooks said.
The Fox broadcast network, for example, didn't debut any new summer shows.
“That's an interesting short-term strategy,” Wakshlag said. “I'm not sure that's a long-term strategy. It worked for them this summer. [But] they have no new shows from this summer to use next year.”
USA was cable's primetime ratings champ this summer, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen data. USA was No. 1 with a 2.4 rating, up 20% from last summer. Disney Channel came in second, with a 2.3 rating, a 15% increase from last year.
TNT placed third with a 2.1 rating, slipping 13% from last summer, followed by Lifetime, with a 1.5, dipping 6%. TBS and Cartoon Network each posted a 1.4 rating. Both networks were flat compared with last year.
ESPN, Fox News Channel, Nick at Nite and Hallmark Channel all tied with a 1.3 rating. ESPN and Hallmark were each up 18% versus last summer, while Fox News and Nick at Nite were both down 24%.
USA is benefiting from the return of pro-wrestling perennial WWE Monday Night Raw to its lineup this year, as well as the strong performances of not only the veteran scripted program Monk but also the new series Psych, a breakout hit for cable this summer.
“They're comparing wrestling to a year without wrestling, of course. That has boosted USA, along with Monk,” Brooks said. “They've got several different poles to their success. It's not just wrestling or it's not just Monk, or their movie inventory. These things work together.”
USA has also built original-program blocks on three nights: On Fridays, Monk and Psych are scheduled; on Sunday, it's The Dead Zone and The 4400; and Monday features WWE Raw.
“What we love is Friday night, Sunday night and Monday night, we have solid, original, rating-getting programming,” said Bonnie Hammer, president of USA and Sci Fi Channel.
Monk provided a strong lead-in for Psych, helping to give it “legs,” Brooks said. Psych has averaged a 3.9 rating.
“We're happy campers, for a whole lot of reasons,” Hammer said. “To have the No. 1 new cable series — Psych is the best-rated new original cable series out there this year — and it pretty much did everything we wanted it to, in terms of a block with Monk.”
The successful addition of Psych to USA's lineup, paired with Monk, is part of the network's new strategy and branding campaign.
USA has moved to create shows that are “character-centric,” upbeat, fun and escapist, according to Hammer.
Original movies performed extremely well for basic cable this summer, for networks including AMC, Disney Channel, Lifetime and TNT. The two parts of AMC's first made-for-TV movie, the Western Broken Trail, ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the ratings for all cable programming this summer. The second part ranked first with a 7.9, while the first part was next with a 7.8.
Disney Channel's original movie The Cheetah Girls 2 earned a 5.8 rating. TNT's The Ron Clark Story posted a 5.5 rating, while Lifetime's The Fantasia Barrino Story did a 5.0.
Broadcast networks still debut most of their new shows in the fall, although a few cable channels have scheduled premieres then. TBS, for example, will be launching My Boys and 10 Items or Less.
“Fortunately for us in cable, the broadcasters continue to put all of their shows against each other,” Brooks said. “It's a huge slaughter; it's like all the lemmings going off the cliff. By early October, the corpses are being carried off the field, and the few that survive, survive.
“Cable, on the other hand, because it's producing shows from so many different networks, we never premiere all our stuff against each other.”
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