Skip to main content

Who Watches Millionaire? CBS Says: Cable Viewers

Cable and broadcast officials were at odds last week about
whether or not ABC hit Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? snatched most of its audience
-- and phenomenal ratings -- from basic cable in the November sweep.

As the sweep period ended last week, cable-network
executives were asserting that Millionaire got many of its viewers by attracting
more people to TV, as well as by taking audience away from NBC and CBS.

In contrast, CBS argued that cable lost viewers to Millionaire.

Overall, buoyed by Millionaire'ssuccess,
broadcast enjoyed one of its strongest primetime sweep periods in recent times. Basic
cable, while still posting ratings gains, didn't fare as well as it has in the past.

In November, basic cable was up only 4 percent in
primetime, to a 24.1 rating from a 23.1 a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research
data supplied by Turner Entertainment Research.

Cable's all-news channels took a particularly hard hit
during this sweep period, in which ESPN ranked No. 1 in primetime for cable. Major cable
networks such as USA Network, Turner Network Television and Nickelodeon all saw drops in
their primetime ratings.

"This time around, cable's growth period has slowed up
a bit," said Robert Sieber, vice president of audience development for Turner
Networks. "We're up 4 percent, instead of 7 percent to 8 percent. But this sweep
period has been an aberration. This time, the broadcast networks performed better than in
recent sweep periods."

Added Ray Giacopelli, USA Networks Inc.'s vice president of
audience analysis, "Cable was up in a tough month. It's nice to have growth."

The "Big Three" broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS
and NBC -- rose 3 percent, to a 28.8 in primetime, enjoying a break from their past
audience erosion. When the Fox network -- which saw a 17 percent ratings decline -- was
added in, broadcast was flat in November, at a 33.1 rating.

The biggest story out of the November sweep was the
performance of hit primetime game show Millionaire,which catapulted ABC to
its first sweep victory since 1995. As a result of ABC's success, the other broadcast
networks are rushing to put their own primetime game shows on the air.

ABC responded last week by adding Millionaire to its
primetime schedule. Starting Jan. 11, the show will be on three nights per week, the
network said.

In a CBS conference call with reporters last week,
executive vice president of planning and research David Poltrack maintained that most of
the ratings gains Millionaire enjoyed in its time slot came from cable's hide.

"Less than one-half [of Millionaire'sgains]
came from other broadcasters," Poltrack said. "More than one-half of it came
from cable and non-network sources."

According to Poltrack, Millionaire has been
averaging a 15 rating in its time period, an 8.3 point increase over the 6.7 rating ABC
had been doing previously during that slot. CBS, NBC and Fox have only lost 2.8 rating
points during that time period, which means roughly two-thirds of Millionaire'sratings
gains for ABC have come from either cable, PBS, The WB Television Network or independent
stations, Poltrack said.

"The assumption is that most of Millionaire'saudience came from cable, because of cable's dominance in primetime," he added.

But both Sieber and Giacopelli disagreed with Poltrack's
theory. Both argued that a good portion of Millionaire'saudience in
November came from new TV viewers drawn to the surprise hit.

"I would have to conjecture that it brought new people
to the tube," Giacopelli said.

In fact, Sieber ran his own analysis, comparing the ratings
of the broadcast networks and cable during Millionaire'stime period versus
their overall primetime performance in November.

"The premise that cable was severely impacted by the
show is simply false," Sieber said. "When Millionaire was on the air,
ad-supported basic cable averaged only three-tenths of a rating point less than its
primetime performance for the entire month of November. Meanwhile, CBS and NBC lost 2.2
combined rating points against their monthly average."

So according to Sieber, Millionaire's ratings gains
for ABC came from NBC, CBS and by raising total U.S. TV viewing.

During the CBS press call, Poltrack also characterized Millionaire
as "default" programming that viewers turn to when their appointment shows
aren't on. "That really hurts cable," he said, claiming that many viewers turn
to cable as a "default" option when nothing compelling is on broadcast.

Jonathan Sims, vice president of research for the
Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, disputed Poltrack's claim that Millionaire was
a "default" choice for viewers. "It's obviously appointment viewing,"
Sims said.

He conceded that basic cable's November sweep delivery and
ratings increases were "less than its traditional increases." However, Sims
added, "with what's been happening with Millionaire, we'll take it."

For his part, Sieber congratulated ABC on its success, but
noted that November is only a one-month period. "You have to give ABC credit for
creating a great sprinter," Sieber said. "But don't forget, we're in a

During the November sweep, ESPN ranked No. 1 in primetime
-- boosted by its Sunday-night National Football League games -- with a 2.6 rating, up 8
percent from a year ago, according to Nielsen data for 27 out of 28 days of the sweep.

In the No. 2 slot, TBS Superstation posted a strong 2.2
rating, a nice 22 percent increase from a year ago. TBS got a special lift from airing The
Wizard of Oz
, which was basic cable's highest-rated theatrical for the year to date. Oz
posted a 6.4 rating Nov. 21.

USA came in third in primetime this November sweep with a
2.1 rating, down 9 percent. It was followed by: Nick, with a 1.8, down 10 percent; TNT,
with a 1.6, down 20 percent; and Cartoon Network, with a 1.6, up 7 percent.

This November was a slow month for breaking news, and as a
result, the all-news channels saw their ratings dive. In primetime, Cable News Network was
down 45 percent, to a 0.6 from a 1.1. MSNBC dropped 40 percent, to a 0.3 from a 0.5. Fox
News Channel saw the smallest decline, dipping 20 percent, to a 0.4 from a 0.5.

A CNN spokeswoman pointed out that last November, CNN and
other 24-hour news networks benefited from a heavy news cycle that included the bombing of
Iraq, Kenneth Starr's testimony on Capitol Hill and John Glenn's return to space.

The biggest ratings gainers during the November sweep in
primetime were: Courtroom Television Network, up 500 percent to a 0.6; Bravo, up 50
percent to a 0.3; The History Channel, up 29 percent to a 0.9; and A&E Network, up 18
percent to a 1.3.

For total-day during the November sweep, Nick was No. 1,
garnering a 1.6 rating, a gain of 7 percent from a year ago. November marked Nick's
highest-rated month since March. The network said it got a boost from the launches of The
Amanda Show
and 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd in its "Snick" block from
8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays.