Cable Hot List 2010

By deftly landing Conan O’Brien after NBC’s ham-handed handling of the late-night host, TBS pierced a veil that has long hung between the broadcast networks and the cable cousins they’ve historically looked down upon.

In the past decade, cable nets like TBS, USA, FX and others have proven they can program dramas, sitcoms and even reality on par with the Big Four. But star power—the talent wattage fueling ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox’s klieg lights for so long—has only appeared on cable as random flashes of brilliance. Now, with a legit late-night host on a fully distributed cable network five nights a week starting this November, cable has arrived. For landing Coco and Co., TBS itself alights to the No. 1 position on AdweekMedia’s 2010 Cable Hot List. Competition for that slot, as Mediaweek senior editor Anthony Crupi thoroughly catalogs, was keen.

USA (No. 2 on the list after being tops for the prior two years) recorded a near-perfect track record of originals. And powered by the ratings juggernaut that is WWE, USA will have an impressive slate of seven original series running by end of year.  Cable’s long-standing connection to sports has paid massive dividends. To wit, ESPN (No. 3) and TNT (No. 4) as well as MLB Network, NFL Network and Golf Channel (Nos. 3, 5 and 10 on our 10 Under 75 Million subs list) all saw ratings and revenue gains driven by the rights they hold. ABC Family and History also continued to revamp to the benefit of their ratings and bottom lines.

In the case of History president and gm Nancy Dubuc, profiled on the next page by contributing writer T.L. Stanley, that success has led to a new assignment: fix struggling sister AETN net Lifetime. Finally, thanks in part to Jersey Shore famebots Snooki and The Situation, MTV, cable’s icon of counter programming, is back on the national radar and on our list for the first time at No. 10. We hope Martha Quinn will be proud. —The Editors

Methodology: Each network on the 2010 AdweekMedia Cable Hot List was assessed in the context of eight categories: ad revenue (SNL Kagan); Nielsen ratings (deliveries relative to the previous year, with an emphasis on guaranteed demos); programming slate (established/ upcoming series); strength of the executive suite (weighted toward ad sales and programming); brand equity (Beta Research surveys); affiliate revenue; buzz (consumer/ trade ink); and intangibles, a catchall that incorporates the likelihood of future success. By weight, ad revenue was the single most impactful metric, accounting for 25 percent of each score. Ratings and programming together accounted for 40 percent, followed by suits, brands, affiliate fees (25 percent). Buzz and intangibles kicked in the remainder.

1. TBS

Having bum-rushed the broadcast upfront party the past two years running, David Levy and Steve Koonin aren’t exactly a pair of shrinking violets. But in drawing NBC outcast Conan O’Brien to basic cable and landing a deal that gives Turner and CBS joint custody of the NCAA men’s basketball tourney, the Turner ad sales chief and programming guru truly outdid themselves this spring. O’Brien’s new 11 p.m. TBS show bows in November, and it’s poised to be a transformative moment for the net. If choreographed ursine onanism was fair game at NBC, one can only imagine what sort of inspired silliness O’Brien’s writers will unleash in their new cable digs. But it’s safe to say that the move will make TBS a must-buy for clients targeting young viewers in late night. Meanwhile, Koonin is mulling over a quartet of one-hour comedy pilots to serve as a lead-in, including a project starring Office Space alum Gary Cole.

Originals: Conan O’Brien Show, House of Payne, Meet the Browns, Are We There Yet?, Neighbors From Hell, Lopez Tonight.
Ratings: Averaged 5.15 Mil. viewers with 18 MLB playoff games, down 4% from 2008’s 22 postseason games. In Q1 took second place among 18-34s (595K, down 7%) and third among 18-49s (1.07 Mil., down 5%).
2009 net ad rev: $686.9 Mil., down 5%.

2. USA

Breakout originals like Burn Notice and Royal Pains have allowed USA to build on its four-year streak as cable’s most-watched network. And that doesn’t factor in the consistency of WWE Raw, which draws north of 5 million viewers every Monday night. (Because the folding-chair-to-the-noggin ethos that informs the wrestling showcase is Kryptonite to many marketers, USA is trying to glam Raw up a touch with a new Celebrity Guest Host concept.) In a quarter marked by the Winter Olympics, the NBCU net swept top demos and delivered an average prime-time audience of 3.14 million viewers, down 4 percent vs. Q1 ’09. With the launch of July’s Covert Affairs and Facing Kate (Q4), USA will close out the year with seven homegrown series.

Originals: Burn Notice, Royal Pains, White Collar, In Plain Sight, Psych, Covert Affairs, Facing Kate.
Ratings: Boasted 7 of cable’s top 10 series in ’09. Record deliveries of A18-49 (1.38 Mil., up 5%) and A25-54 (1.49 Mil., up 11%).
’09 net ad rev: $887.2 Mil., up 11%.

3. ESPN

Bristol enjoyed another powerhouse season of Monday Night Football, averaging 14.4 million viewers for its 17-game NFL slate. The spectacle of longtime QB Brett Favre returning to the NFC North in a Vikings uni helped ESPN draw 21.8 million viewers on Oct. 5, nabbing the most-watched program in cable history. But it’s the other kind of football that will take center pitch this summer, as the net presents all 64 matches of the FIFA World Cup. Per Kantar, ESPN and ABC Sports took in about $89 million in ad revenue targeting the ’06 tourney. Given the stateside explosion of interest in the sport and Bono-enhanced
promos, that stat could easily swell to beyond $200 million.

Franchises: Monday Night Football, Monday Night Baseball, Big Monday, College Football Saturday, College GameDay, SportsCenter.
Ratings: In Q1, averaged 1.86 Mil. viewers, up 20%, while growing A18-49 14% to 830K and getting 840K A25-54, up 16%
’09 net ad rev: $1.37 Bil., down 2%. Highest sub fee at $4.10 a pop per month, drawing $4.95 Bil. a year.

4. TNT

TNT continues to bolster original drama suite, adding the Jason Lee vehicle Memphis Beat and Angie Harmon’s Beantown crime showcase Rizzoli & Isles this summer, and plotting an untitled alien-invasion from DreamWorks Television and Steven Spielberg. The Closer held its ground as cable’s most-watched scripted effort, averaging 7.75 million viewers in season 5, and newcomers Leverage, Hawthorne and Dark Blue also clicked. But TNT’s ambitions sometimes exceed its grasp. Flagging deliveries doomed Raising the Bar and Trust Me, and strong performer Saving Grace will breathe its last this summer. Since ’05, TNT has pulled the plug on six series, and while that translates to a stellar .500 batting average, it still lags rival USA’s near-perfect record. Ratings from sports properties like the NBA, NCAA hoops and Nascar well worth celebrating.

Originals: The Closer, Leverage, Hawthorne, Men of a Certain Age, Dark Blue, Southland, Memphis Beat, Rizzoli & Isles.
Ratings: Leverage and Hawthorne were the 3rd- and 4th- most watched new cable series of ’09. In Q1 took 3rd among A18-49 (966K, down 5%) and 2nd among A5-54 (1 Mil., down 7%).
’09 net ad rev: $762 Mil., up 2%.

5. NICKELODEON

In light of the success of its prime-time franchise iCarly, Nick is delving even further into live-action programming, bowing the musical comedy Victorious on March 27 and prepping the mystery series House of Anubis for fall. Along with recently renewed Big Time Rush, Victorious represents Nick’s push to develop music-based franchises, an effort that can be seen as a bid to challenge Disney Channel’s hegemony over the genre. Not that Nick is slacking off on the animated front-Kung Fu Panda: The Series is its second collaboration with DreamWorks, and 11-year-old SpongeBob SquarePants continues to secure the network’s dominance with kids.

Originals: SpongeBob SquarePants, iCarly, Fanboy & Chum Chum, Victorious, Big Time Rush, Penguins of Madagascar.
Ratings: Closed out ’09 tops in total day, averaging 2.2 Mil. viewers. Also finished first among kids 2-11 (1.22 Mil.), and eked out wins over Disney among kids 6-11 (665K to 615K) and viewers 6-14 (852K to 806K).
’09 net ad rev: $999.7 Mil., down 4%.

6. FX

While life after the dissolution of the “Strike Team” has been good to FX-the network’s first post-Shield year was also its most lucrative-president John Landgraf looks to draw even greater heat by offering a more inclusive programming slate, investing $600 million to secure the rights to popcorn flicks like Avatar and Twilight. That’s not to suggest FX has turned its back on the gritty fare that helped define it. Following a record premiere, the net re-upped crime drama Justified. Moreover, its slate of outré comedies has rivals poaching its wares (Comedy Central scooped up the off-net rights to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for $400K per episode).

Originals: Rescue Me, Sons of Anarchy, Archer, The League, Justified, Sunny, Louie, Lights Out.
Ratings: Tops among M18-49, the gritty second season of Sons took the silver among A18-49, averaging 3.04 Mil. In Q1 took 6th place among A18-49 (730K, down 5%); closed out last year up 9% to 780K.
’09 net ad rev: $404.7 million, up 10%.

7. DISCOVERY CHANNEL

The leader in unscripted programming for a quarter century, Discovery Channel’s incumbent series are so strong in their fifth, sixth and eighth seasons that they don’t leave all that much room for many new shows. As long as Dirty Jobs,  Deadliest Catch and MythBusters continue to draw a crowd week in and week out, Discovery need only concentrate on the blockbuster stuff, specials and stunts like Life and the inimitable Shark Week. Such is the case headed into the 2010-11 upfront, as the network preps the 60-episode effort Curiosity: The Questions of Our Life, a pet project steered by founder John Hendricks. Also in the works is The Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero, a limited series from Steven Spielberg chronicling the agonizingly slow process of reclaiming the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Originals: Dirty Jobs, MythBusters, Deadliest Catch, Man Vs. Wild, Storm Chasers, Curiosity, Human Planet.
Ratings: Closed out ’09 7th in the core demo, averaging 673K A18-49 (up 3%). Took 8th among A25-54, up 5% to 664K.
’09 net ad rev: $366.5 Mil., down 13%.

8. HISTORY

After casting aside its musty cache of sepia-toned WW II footage in favor of more contemporary fare like Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars, History chief Nancy Dubuc is really looking to shake things up in 2010-11. The net has ordered its first original scripted miniseries, The Kennedys, that stars Tom Wilkinson as kingmaker Joe Kennedy Sr. and Greg Kinnear as the future president. From Hyannis Port it’s off to such far-flung ports of call as the ancient burial grounds of Egypt (Chasing Mummies), the Louisiana tidal basin (Swamp People) and Monticello (Jefferson). The balance between the present tense and the distant past draws 25-54 and 18-49 demos; success among the latter has helped History bring in a wealth of new business, from QSR to videogames. 

Originals: Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, American Pickers, The Kennedys, Stan Lee’s Superhumans, Chasing Mummies.
Ratings: In Q1, ranked 7th among all ad-supported cable nets with A18-49, growing 17% to 713K. Also up 17% with A25-54, averaging 780K. Total prime-time deliveries up 14% to 1.5 Mil.
’09 net ad rev: $313.8 Mil., up 1%.

9. ABC FAMILY

While ABC Family does brisk business with Millennials, closing out Q1 ’10 ranked third in prime time among tweens and their younger siblings, the channel’s reach isn’t limited to those who aren’t old enough to get a learner’s permit. The success of original series like The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Greek has allowed the Disney net to position itself as a must-buy for clients targeting adults 18-49, a message ABC Family will trumpet during the 2010-11 upfront. Buyers are taken with Pretty Little Liars, a spooky bauble based on the popular, young-adult book series of the same name. A stylish mash-up of themes explored in angsty teen comedies like Heathers and Mean Girls, Pretty Little Liars bows June 8.

Originals: The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Greek, Pretty Little Liars, Huge, Make It or Break It, Melissa & Joey.
Ratings: In ’09, ranked 8th among all ad-supported cable nets with its deliveries of A18-49 and A18-34 (both demos are up 4%).
’09 net ad rev: $315.6 Mil., up 1%.

10. MTV

Every five years or so MTV detonates a culture bomb that shakes the core demo by the scruff and leaves the rest of us with smoke pouring out of our uncomprehending ears. After years of foundering, the Viacom net found its next Beavis and Butthead, its latest Jackass, in the sextet of GTL enthusiasts from the breakout winter hit Jersey Shore. If Snooki, The Situation and JWoww aren’t exactly everybody’s cup of chianti-the show’s avid embrace of certain regional stereotypes was routinely blasted by Italian-American groups and Domino’s yanked its ads after the premiere-the Shore denizens made MTV part of the national conversation again. Building off that base tan, the net boasted five of the top 15 original series in its target demo.

Originals: Jersey Shore, 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom, The Dudesons, The Hard Times of RJ Berger, If You Really Knew Me.
Ratings: Boosted Q1 deliveries 6% to 920K viewers; finished 3rd among A18-34 (451K, up 3%).
’09 net ad rev: $680.4 Mil., down 14%.