Updated: USA Cruising Toward ’09 Ratings Crown

USA Network is on track to deliver its fourth consecutive annual ratings victory in 2009, averaging a record 3.29 million viewers in prime time, a 16 percent improvement over its year-ago mark.
For the period spanning Dec. 29, 2008, through Dec. 6, 2009, USA swept ad-supported cable’s three top TV demos, averaging 1.5 million adults 25-54, an increase of 13 percent versus 2008, while serving up 1.38 million viewers 18-49 (up 6 percent). The NBC Universal net also held off TBS to take the younger set, drawing 613,000 viewers 18-34.

Should the numbers stand through the remainder of the year, USA will have shattered the records it set in 2008, when it averaged 2.84 million total viewers, 1.33 million adults 25-54 and 1.3 million viewers 18-49.

(When factoring in all basic-cable nets, this year marks USA’s second straight win among total viewers. In 2007, non-ad-supported Disney Channel topped the total cable universe with 2.7 million total viewers, edging USA’s 2.68 million in the same period.)

On the year, USA boasted cable’s two most-watched new series in Royal Pains (7.47 million viewers per week) and White Collar (5.68 million). Both programs also ran away with their target demos, as Pains served up 3.56 million adults 25-54 and 3.15 million viewers 18-49, while Collar averaged 2.29 million 25-54s and 2.04 million 18-49s.

USA also accounted for half of cable’s top 10 returning series. With an average delivery of 7.19 million viewers, Burn Notice closed out the year second only to TNT’s The Closer. That said, the wry spy drama topped the demos, averaging 3.61 million adults 25-54 and 3.27 million viewers 18-49.

Other big earners for USA were: Monk, which ended its eight-season run on Dec. 4 in front of a crowd of 9.44 million viewers; Psych, which averaged 5.21 million viewers in the first half of its third season; and In Plain Sight, which scared up 5 million viewers in its sophomore effort.

As has been the case for the last four years running, TNT and ESPN once again took the two and three spots in prime. The last time TNT won the yearly ratings race was in 2005, when the Turner net averaged 2.57 million viewers.
TNT in 2009 drew 2.26 million prime-time viewers, up 1 percent versus the prior-year average. The net put together its best demo numbers with the 25-54 set, averaging a second-best 1.11 million viewers, up 2 percent versus 2008.

Per Nielsen ratings data, TNT took fourth among 18-49s, growing 1 percent to 1.04 million viewers, while gaining 4 percent among the 18-34 set (459,000).

TNT carried three of cable’s most-watched new programs in 2009, including: Leverage (4.21 million total viewers/2.14 million adults 25-54); Hawthorne (4 million viewers/1.82 million adults 25-54); and Dark Blue (3.29 million viewers/1.6 million adults 25-54).

With an average delivery of 7.75 million viewers, The Closer continued its reign at the top of the original-series heap. On the eve of its sixth season on TNT, the drama took second among returning series in the core demo, averaging 3.2 million adults 25-54.

Third-place ESPN continued to show steady gains, growing its total nightly audience by 9 percent, to 2.22 million viewers. The sports giant took second place with viewers 18-49, averaging 1.07 million (up 6 percent), while improving its prior-year delivery of 25-54s by 9 percent (1.08 million).

Among the 18-34 demo, ESPN’s deliveries increased 3 percent to 516,000.

Thanks to Monday Night Football, ESPN owned each of the year’s top 10 most-viewed programs. On Oct. 5, Bristol broke the all-time record for a cable telecast, averaging 21.9 million viewers with its coverage of the MNF clash between the Packers and Vikings. Of that total, 11.9 million viewers fell into the 18-49 camp, while 11.8 million were members of the 25-54 crowd.

More recently, ESPN nearly broke its own newly-hatched record, as its Nov. 30 Saints-Pats telecast drew 21.4 million fans.
If ESPN is to sustain its bronze finish, it will have to hold off a final surge by Fox News Channel, which currently trails in prime by a mere 3,000 total viewers. Even after the presidential election cycle helped lift FNC to record heights a year ago, the news net is on track to nail down its best ratings year, with preliminary results of 2.22 million prime time viewers.

With about two weeks to go before the Nielsen calendar flips over to 2010, FNC is showing annual growth of 7 percent among total viewers. Moreover, the network is up 9 percent in the core news demo, averaging 549,000 adults 25-54. (More tellingly, when compared to the most recent election-free year, 2007, FNC is up 51 percent in total viewers and 56 percent among the demo.)

TBS will hold onto fifth place among ad-supported cable nets, averaging 1.84 million total viewers in prime, a drop of 7 percent from last year’s 1.98 million. After winning the 18-34 demo in 2008, TBS slipped a peg to second place, averaging 593,000 (down 7 percent).

The Turner net dropped to third among 18-49s (1.06 million, a 5 percent decline versus the previous year), while retaining fourth place among adults 25-54, falling 6 percent to 933,000.
Rounding out the year’s top 10 are: Nick at Nite, A&E, FX, ABC Family and Cartoon Network.
After posting a 30 percent jump in viewership in 2008, Nick at Nite showed less momentous growth in 2009, delivering 1.73 million viewers (up 2 percent). A&E was up 7 percent, to 1.45 million viewers, while FX grew 9 percent (1.36 million).

ABC Family saw its prime time deliveries increase 5 percent on the year, averaging 1.32 million viewers, while No. 10 Cartoon Network slipped 3 percent to 1.3 million.

Per Nielsen, nine of ad-supported cable’s top 40 networks notched double-digit ratings gains in 2009, while only six nets suffered declines of 10 percent or more. All told, the top 40 nets accounted for an aggregate 2.7 percent uptick in nightly deliveries.

While the top 10 was relatively stable, with only USA growing by 10 percent or more, it was a mixed bag for cable nets that ranked between No. 11 and No. 40 in prime. The biggest gainer of the year was Food Network, which was up 26 percent in total viewers, averaging 1.12 million. The Scripps Net franchise catapulted from No. 25 in prime in 2008 to No. 16.

Also making great strides were BET, which boosted its prime time deliveries by 25 percent to 783,000 viewers, and TLC, which grew 18 percent to 1.07 million viewers. Lifetime Movie Network lifted its average 14 percent (640,000 total viewers), as did Headline News (562,000) and National Geographic Channel (460,000). CMT grew 12 percent in prime (397,000), while Soap Net upped its average delivery 10 percent to 357,000.

Those that still have a shot at notching double-digit gains are: HGTV (up 9 percent through Dec. 6 with 1.2 million viewers); Travel Channel (up 9 percent, 487,000); ESPN2 (8 percent, 697,000) and Oxygen (8 percent, 422,000).

On the other side of the ledger, a handful of cable nets experienced vertiginous declines in 2009. After surging 69 percent in 2008, CNN gave up a good deal of ground this year, falling 30 percent to 921,000 prime time viewers. The news net also experienced a 42 percent drop among the core demo, averaging 271,000 adults 25-54. (When compared to the 766,000 viewers/244,000 adults 25-54 it drew in the last non-election year, CNN was up 20 percent and 11 percent, respectively, versus 2007.)

Lifetime dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in recent memory, moving from the No. 7 spot in prime to No. 15 as its deliveries fell 20 percent to 1.18 million viewers. This despite landing two shows in the top 10 among returning cable series (Army Wives, Project Runway) and introducing a new hit (Drop Dead Diva drew 3.37 million viewers in its first season).

After posting a 7 percent increase in 2008, Hallmark Channel this year fell out of the top 10, averaging 1.07 million viewers (down 19 percent). Spike TV fell 17 percent to 1.06 million total viewers, while its Viacom sibling MTV couldn’t find the brakes, sliding another 11 percent in prime (807,000). Set to close out the year at No. 25, MTV hasn’t finished in the top 20 since 2006.

After shooting up 82 percent in prime a year ago, MSNBC endured a bit of a comedown, falling 12 percent in prime to 822,000 viewers. Although it beat CNN in the 25-54 demo, averaging 285,000, that delivery represented a 23 percent year-over-year decline. As with the other news nets, a comparison to 2007 is in order. Versus the 507,000 viewers it drew two years ago, MSNBC’s prime time deliveries for 2009 were up 62 percent. By the same token, MSNBC’s demo was up 41 percent from its 2007 tally.

All told, the core TV demo was a mixed bag for cable in 2009, as 26 of the top 40 nets were flat-to-up among adults 18-49. Ten of those nets enjoyed increases of 10 percent or more versus 2008.

The year’s top performers in the demo were: USA (1.38 million viewers 18-49); ESPN (1.07 million); TBS (1.06 million); TNT (1.04 million); FX (774,000); A&E (694,000); Discovery Channel (674,000); Syfy (604,000); ABC Family (594,000) and Comedy Central (592,000).
Ad-supported cable’s top 10 programs among the demo were: USA’s Burn Notice (3.27 million 18-49s) and Royal Pains (3.15 million); FX’ Sons of Anarchy (3.04 million); Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch (2.78 million); Lifetime’s Project Runway (2.76 million); Bravo’s Top Chef (2.7 million); TLC’s Jon & Kate Plus 8 (2.51 million); Comedy Central’s South Park (2.47 million); TNT’s The Closer (2.42 million) and Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta (2.32 million).