USA Tops ’06 Cable Ratings

NEW YORK USA Network wrapped up 2006 as the top ad-supported cable channel, averaging 2.65 million total viewers in prime time over the course of the year, an increase of 13 percent versus 2005.

According to Nielsen Media Research data, USA also beat all comers in the core demos, averaging 1.2 million adults 18-49 (an 11 percent increase over 2005) and 1.2 million adults 25-54 (a 9 percent year-to-year hike), breaking TNT’s four-year winning streak in those two categories. USA also notched the best number with adults 18-34 (540,000, up 15 percent versus last year).

In the total cable universe, non-ad-supported Disney closed out the year at No. 2, averaging 2.54 million viewers in prime time, a 20 percent jump from its 2005 performance. Disney claimed 12 of the year’s top 100 programs, reaching its apogee on Aug. 25 with its original movie The Cheetah Girls 2, which debuted to more than 8.1 million viewers between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Among ad-supported nets, TNT finished on the heels of rival USA, averaging 2.4 million viewers in prime time, a dip of 7 percent from 2005. The Turner net also took second among adults 18-49 (1.1 million, down 8 percent) and adults 25-54 (1.2 million, down 8 percent) and closed the year with 26 of the top 100 programs on basic cable.

TNT reached its biggest audience with the season two premiere of The Closer, which delivered just under 8.5 million viewers on June 12, breaking the record for a single episode of an original cable series.

ESPN parlayed its Monday Night Football contract into huge ratings, averaging 2.2 million viewers, an increase of 20 percent year-over-year. The sports net laid claim to 17 of the top 20 programs on cable with MNF, averaging 12.5 million viewers throughout the season and breaking the all-time cable record with its Oct. 23 presentation of the NFC East showdown between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys, which drew 16 million viewers.

ESPN also took third among adults 18-49 (1 million, up 17 percent) and 25-54 (also about 1 million, up 18 percent), while finishing second among adults 18-34 (482,000, up 18 percent).

Rounding out the top 10 cable nets of 2006 were: TBS (1.65 million, down 3 percent year-over-year); Lifetime (1.6 million, off 12 percent); Cartoon Network (1.5 million, down 10 percent); Nick-at-Nite (just less than 1.5 million, down 21 percent); Fox News Channel (1.4 million, off 20 percent); FX (1.25 million, up 8 percent); and Spike TV (1.24 million, off 20 percent).

Although the top 10 nets generally saw their ratings drop in 2006, a number of networks enjoyed double-digit increases. Among the top 30 nets, Hallmark Channel chalked up its second consecutive year of ratings growth, upping its average prime time audience to nearly 1.2 million, a boost of more than 25 percent over 2005. (The previous year, Hallmark had grown 27 percent.) Discovery Channel continued its comeback, growing 14 percent to almost 1.15 million viewers, while sister net TLC was up 12 percent (815,000).

Elsewhere, HGTV grew 18 percent; BET was up 11 percent; VH1 beefed up by 14 percent; and Bravo soared 20 percent. A&E, which was down 6 percent in prime in 2005, flipped the script for a gain of 7 percent.

On the other side of the ledger, MTV continued to struggle in prime (down 10 percent), as did CNN (down 12 percent).

Cable news outlets saw prime-time audiences dwindle in 2006, with the leader in the space, Fox News Channel, dropping 26 percent in the core 25-54 demo. CNN fell 17 percent in the demo, while CNN Headline News was down 5 percent in total viewers and 4 percent in the demo.

CNBC was the only cable news net that saw significant growth in 2006, upping its prime-time audience by 32 percent and boosting its core demo more than 15 percent. MSNBC grew slightly, upping its total prime-time audience by 5 percent and its 25-54 number by 7 percent.