Cable Nets Kick Sand in Face of Broadcast

NEW YORK The Big Four broadcast nets are again treading water this summer, with cumulative live-plus-same-day DVR viewership down 2.3 million per night or 9 percent lower than last summer, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

On the other hand, cable is finally having a leisurely summer kicking sand in broadcast’s face. Summer to date (through Aug. 2), no fewer than nine original cable series are averaging a 2 household rating, generally considered the Mendoza Line as far as potential renewals are concerned. Five of those programs are new; only one series, USA’s Monk, has been in production more than three seasons.

During the regular broadcast season, which ended May 23, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC were cumulatively down an average 1.5 million viewers per night, 3.6 percent lower than the 2005-06 season. So their loss of viewers is 60 percent greater than during the regular season. ABC has lost the most viewers summer-over-summer, averaging 4.8 million, down 14 percent. NBC is off nearly 12 percent, with its viewer total now 5.4 million, and CBS is down nearly 9 percent to 6.9 million viewers. Fox has lost 2 percent of its summer viewers, down to 5.8 million.

“The broadcast networks this summer are averaging a 27 share of households, down from a 41 share during the regular broadcast season, while ad-supported cable has a 62 share, compared to 54 during the regular broadcast season,” said Steve Sternberg, evp of audience analysis for Magna Global USA. “There are more new shows on cable this summer than ever, and viewers are watching.”

The broadcast nets decided it’s not economical to produce scripted summer series. There have been a slew of new reality shows, but they’ve relied on regular-season repeats.

NBC has had the most successful new summer reality show, The Singing Bee, which has averaged 13.5 million live-plus-seven-day DVR viewers. Fox also has had a hit with Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, averaging 9.1 million.

The highest-rated broadcast network scripted shows this summer are mainly CBS procedurals in repeat, with the top two being CSI (averaging 9.9 million live-plus seven-day DVR viewers) and NCIS (8.9 million). NBC’s Law & Order: SVU is averaging 8.4 million viewers and Fox’s House 6.6 million viewers. ABC’s scripted shows, most of them serialized, have not traditionally performed well in summer repeats. For example, Grey’s Anatomy is averaging just 3.8 million viewers, only 16 percent of its regular season total viewership of 23.9 million.

The one-solid scripted performer in repeat on NBC has been Law & Order: SVU, drawing 60 percent of its regular-season audience this summer. On Fox, its best regular season scripted performer is House, drawing just 32 percent of its regular-season viewership. (Fox, only down 2 percent in viewership compared to last summer, is being helped by its reality slate.)

Meanwhile, cable has a raft of hit scripted shows this summer, albeit on a smaller base. Much of its drawing power emanates from TNT’s cop drama The Closer, which returned on June 18 to a record basic-cable audience of 8.8 million viewers. And the Holly Hunter vehicle, Saving Grace, debuted July 23 keeping the better part of its Closer lead-in at 10 p.m., averaging 6.4 million viewers. TNT has a longshot candidate for renewal in Heartland. (Two episodes in, TNT yanked it out of its post-Closer slot on Mondays and pushed it back to 8 p.m. Since debuting to 4.3 million viewers on June 18, Heartland is averaging around 3.32 million).

The other king of cable’s Muscle Beach is USA, which is winning the summer through July 29 with an average prime-time viewership of 2.7 million viewers and 1.2 million adults 18-49. The network has racked up two of basic cable’s top five original series this summer, including the workhorse Monk (5.07 million viewers/1.8 million 18-49s) and season two of Psych (4.33 million/1.8 million).

Earlier this summer, USA carved out some beachfront real estate for itself with The Starter Wife, which averaged 4.4 million viewers and 2.3 million 18-49s during its six-hour Thursday night run. Burn Notice has also made some noise on that same night, and USA hopes to keep that momentum going in the fall when NBC Universal officially moves Law & Order: Criminal Intent to its marquee cable property. It’s a move that’s widely seen as a way for USA to help sibling NBC shore up its recent Thursday night losses. And the new Glenn Close legal drama Damages has averaged 3.82 million viewers and 1.3 million adults 18-49 for FX over two weeks of premieres and re-runs.

For the most part, however, once the fall comes, cable will cede the field to the broadcast nets. However, said Tim Brooks, evp of research at Lifetime, “eventually you’re going to see a show on cable that outdraws anything on broadcast, and that’s when things will begin to square up in terms of dollars. For now, cable’s just a great bargain.”