Cable Gets an Early Jump

Ratings on Track For Another Record Summer Season

By Linda Moss

Multichannel News - 7/9/07

Cable launched its summer assault on broadcast earlier than usual this year, and it's on track to once again smash ratings records.

Basic cable entered the third quarter with momentum from its strong performance from April through June. In particular, cable programmers debuted a batch of shows that sizzled at the end of the second quarter.

Cable's share of primetime household viewing in the second quarter was a 57.2, up from a 56.1 in the prior-year period, according to a Turner Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. Broadcast was at a 36.3 share, down from 39.5 last year.

The six broadcast networks hit record lows in terms of viewing in the second quarter. They lost 2.4 million households, the equivalent of San Francisco in terms of TV homes, according to Turner.

“It's huge,” Turner Broadcasting System chief research officer Jack Wakshlag said of the loss.

Last summer, cable snared a record 62.1 share of primetime household viewing, nearly twice the broadcast networks' 31.1 share, according to Turner. Wakshlag and at least one of his cable-research colleagues are predicting that cable will perform even better this year.

“We're now past doubling [broadcast's share], 2 to 1, and it shows no sign of slowing down,” said Lifetime Television executive vice president of research Tim Brooks.

He noted that ad-supported cable had a 62.4 primetime share in June, compared with 29 for broadcast. And since cable usually gets even stronger in July, Brooks predicted that “this is certainly going to be a record-breaking summer” for the medium. He expects cable's primetime share to be in the 63 to 64 range, and broadcast's share to be down in the mid- to upper 20s.

Wakshlag declined to predict “a precise number,” but said, “I'm virtually certain it will be a better summer for cable than last year.”

Ad-supported cable has always used the summer season, when broadcast was relatively dormant, as a launch pad to debut new series. But cable often would wait until July to bow new programs, according to Brooks.

This year, those premieres — backed by big marketing campaigns — started sooner, with some cable networks debuting shows as early as late May and June, really getting a jump on the summer season, according to Brooks.

USA Network debuted The Starter Wife on May 31; Lifetime premiered its hit Army Wives on June 3; HBO introduced John from Cincinnati June 10; and TNT's Heartland joined the lineup on June 18.

“Every few days from the very beginning of June, even the very end of May, you've got another premiere on another network — TNT, USA, Lifetime, Sci Fi, HBO and so forth,” Brooks said. “It's a real feast for viewers. And it's spread out, so they don't have to choose which one to sample.”

In terms of individual cable networks, in the second quarter USA was tops in the primetime ratings. USA, with a boost from The Starter Wife and WWE's Monday Night Raw, posted a 2.1 household rating, down 5% compared with 2.2 for the same period last year, according to a Disney/ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen Media Research data released last week.

Following close behind in second place was Disney Channel, with a 2.0 rating, which slipped 5% from last year.

TNT placed third in primetime household ratings, with a 1.9, down 14% from last year's 2.2. TNT, which for several years has dominated the No. 1 spot in primetime in the second quarter because of the National Basketball Association playoffs, took a hit on that coverage this year, which involved teams in smaller markets, namely the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Last year, we had really strong teams and we had a series that went a lot of games,” Wakshlag said. “If the series doesn't go to six or seven games, the ratings are not going to be as strong as before.”

TNT's The Closer is performing strong, with its third-season premiere setting a record as ad-supported cable's most-watched series telecast of all time with 8.8 million overall viewers, and 6.4 million households.

“It's [The Closer] building in its third season,” Wakshlag said. “I don't know many shows that do that.”

Lifetime garnered a 1.2 primetime rating in the second quarter, an 8% decrease.

Cable still has a raft of shows set for summer debuts, with both Lifetime and TNT planning to use their hits to create sampling for shows set to premiere. Lifetime has scheduled its new dramas Side Order of Life and State of Mind for Sunday nights, with Army Wives, starting July 15.

“What we're aiming for is a strong Sunday night, rebuilding the three-series Sunday night that we had,” Brooks said. “Re-establishing that franchise, from which you can then take shows to plant on other nights, is the whole goal of our summer. And the first brick is in place.”

And TNT is adding its new drama Saving Grace to its Monday-night lineup, along with The Closer and Heartland, beginning July 23.

“We want to make Monday an event,” Wakshlag said.

TNT will launch its six-hour limited series The Company, a Cold War CIA drama, Aug. 5, while TBS premieres its original comedy The Bill Engvall Show July 17.