Cable Ratings, Auto Dollars to Add Up in 2011

Television is little more than a delivery mechanism for (a) commercials and (b) the National Football League, and while that statement traffics in the hyperbolic, that doesn’t make it any less true. A glance at the ad sales numbers and cable ratings for the year bears this out rather eloquently.  

A strong scatter market and a deluge of automotive dollars have analysts particularly bullish, and many industry observers are predicting a record haul for ad-supported cable in 2011. In a note to investors, Barclays Capital analyst Anthony DiClemente said cable ad spending would hit $19.6 billion this year, up 8.5 percent from 2009 levels, while next year’s take could add up to as much as $21.5 billion (up 9.5 percent).

In the midst of the Great Recession, cable ad sales in 2009 dipped just 2.5 percent, making it the most resilient sector across all media. More recently, ESPN has enjoyed the greatest upsurge in ad sales dollars, soaring 22 percent in the third quarter, thanks to big gains in auto, financial services and telecom business.

Those increases have continued in the present quarter, thanks in no small part to high scatter pricing (25 percent above upfront rates) and ESPN’s stewardship of Monday Night Football. On the year, ESPN boasted nine of the top 10 most-watched programs on basic cable, and 17 of the top 20. Fourteen of the top 20 programs in 2010 were Monday Night Football broadcasts, while the NFL Pro Bowl, the LeBron James dog-and-pony show and an NCAA football game (Boise State-Virginia Tech) accounted for the other three.

On Oct. 25, ESPN boasted the fourth most-watched program in cable history, drawing 18 million viewers with a MNF match-up between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. Three other MNF broadcasts topped the 17 million viewer mark, and three drew more than 9 million members of the crucial 18-49 demo. (The Sept. 27 Packers-Bears showdown actually out-delivered the Cowboys-Eagles game among the demo, drawing 9.45 million 18-49s to the NFC East clash’s 9.4 million.)

Major League Baseball made three appearances on the top 50 list for 2010, with high honors going to the sixth and deciding game of the American League Championship Series between the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers. TBS averaged 11.9 million viewers on the night of Oct. 22, per Nielsen live-plus-seven-day ratings data, besting Game 4 of the series (9.85 million). Game 3 of the Yanks-Rangers set closed out the top 50, averaging 8.23 million viewers.

Three National Basketball Association playoffs landed in the year’s top 50, including ESPN’s coverage of the deciding game of the Cavaliers-Celtics Eastern Conference Semifinals. Boston sent Cleveland packing with a 94-85 win on its home court, in a game that was seen by a national TV audience of 9 million viewers. TNT also got into the action, drawing 8.71 million viewers on May 23 with Game 5 of the Lakers-Suns Western Conference Finals and 8.48 million with Game 3 of that same series.

MSNBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics also commanded a top draw, as the news net’s telecast of the hockey showdown between Team USA and Team Canada averaged 8.29 million viewers on the night of Feb. 21.

All told, sports accounted for exactly half of the top 50 programs on basic cable this year and 21 of the top 30. Other big draws included: an episode of iCarly, which scared up 12.4 million Nickelodeon viewers on Jan. 18; the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, which landed 12.1 million viewers on Sept. 12; and the July 13 installment of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch (9.61 million).

The year’s most-watched scripted drama was the Sept. 6 episode of TNT’s The Closer, which lured 9.38 million viewers in its 9 p.m. time slot. Freshman lead-out Rizzoli & Isles retained 99 percent of The Closer’s audience, drawing 9.3 million total viewers.

Rizzoli & Isles was the year’s most-watched original series on cable, averaging 8.77 million viewers, per Nielsen L7 estimates. Time-shifted added a net 2.66 million viewers per week, a tidy 44 percent gain versus the show’s live-plus-same-day deliveries.

Among the core TV demo, AMC’s The Walking Dead won handily, averaging 4.55 million viewers 18-49 in the course of its six-episode run. The DVR added 1.85 million members of the demo, an increase of 66 percent from its LSD numbers.

At year’s end, USA Network will take its fifth straight cable ratings crown, with an average draw of 3.15 million prime time viewers (down 4 percent from 2009). Despite an 11 percent drop among viewers 18-49, USA held onto the demo, averaging 1.24 million. It also secured the adults 25-54 title, averaging 1.34 million (down 10 percent).

ESPN finished second among all ad-supported cable nets, averaging 2.33 million viewers, up 4 percent versus the previous year. Bristol also took the silver among the two major TV demos.

TNT will close out 2010 in third place with 2.25 million viewers, flat versus 2009. Non-ad-supported Disney Channel stands to be basic cable’s No. 2 network, as the Mouse averaged 2.58 million viewers in prime, a gain of 1 percent year-over-year.

Fueled by the one-two punch of Pawn Stars and American Pickers, History was easily the biggest gainer of the year, growing its prime time audience 35 percent to a seventh-place 1.63 million viewers. The net put up similar gains among its two target demos, taking fifth place among viewers 25-54 (827,000) and 18-49 (754,000).

Other big gainers among cable’s top 40 networks were: MTV, which rode a wave of GTL to finish up 22 percent in prime (989,000); TV Land, which enjoyed a Betty White boost and a 14 percent improvement in the big-dollar hours (824,000); Nick Jr., up 19 percent to 781,000; E!, up 16 percent to 681,000; Oxygen, up 13 percent to 479,000; and Investigation Discovery, which soared 64 percent with an average nightly turnout of 364,000 viewers.

Only four networks suffered double-digit declines (Hallmark Channel, Spike TV and sibling news nets CNN and Headline News). Despite ongoing ratings challenges at the news nets, Turner still managed to increase its Q3 ad sales haul by 10 percent versus the year-ago period. Entertainment nets TNT, TBS and truTV did much of the heavy lifting throughout the year, as did a resurgent Cartoon Network.