Cable Primed for Victory

NEW YORK For the fifth consecutive year, ad-supported cable is projected to beat out the broadcast networks in prime time, boasting a 55.4 percent household share year-to-date, compared to the six broadcast nets’ 40.4 share.

According to Nielsen Media Research data crunched by Turner chief research officer Jack Wakshlag, while cable’s dominance of prime time continued in 2006, its growth appears to be leveling off. If the 69 measured cable nets reach the projected 55.5 share at the end of the year, that number represents growth of just one-tenth of 1 percent versus last year’s share.

The same principle applies to the 18-49 demo. Cable should win in that core demo for the third consecutive year, with a projected 44.1 share, a decline of two-tenths of a percentage point. Meanwhile, broadcast is projected to post a 36.7 share among adults 18-49 in prime, a drop of one-half of a percentage point.

If cable’s ratings surge over the last five years—since 2001, its share of the 18-49 demo has grown 7 percentage points, or 15.8 percent, while broadcast has dropped 7 points, or 16 percent—has tapered off, that may be a function of prime having reached a saturation point. According to Wakshlag, the amount of prime-time viewership hasn’t changed since 2001, holding firm at an average 7.5 hours per week per person.

Nor did the ratio of ad sales dollars to share change in 2006. To date, cable is getting just 31 percent of advertisers’ prime-time spend, versus the 69 percent that goes over to the broadcast nets. Wakshlag reported those same numbers in his year-end ratings presentation of December 2005.

Through September, the broadcast nets commanded $10.72 billion in ad sales, according to Nielsen Adviews, down 7.6 percent from the $11.59 billion they took in throughout 2001. On the other side of the ledger, this year saw cable doing $4.77 billion in ad sales through September, versus $3.33 billion in 2001, an increase of 30.2 percent.

Of all measured ad-supported cable nets, USA Network is projected to sweep the annual prime-time ratings competition, finishing first in total viewers (2.62 million), as well as among adults 18-49 (1.17 million), 25-54 (1.19 million) and 18-34 (533,000). TNT will take second among total viewers (2.4 million), and should finish second in its delivery of 18-49s and 25-54s. Sibling net TBS will end the year in second place among adults 18-34, while TNT should take fourth in the demo.

ESPN will end the year in third place in total viewers (2.09 million), and should land in the same spot in all three core demos. Year-to-date, the sports net has hiked its share of 18-49s by 15 percent, thanks in large part to its acquisition of Monday Night Football.

Rounding out the top 10 most-watched cable nets of 2006 are: TBS, with 1.62 million total prime-time viewers; Lifetime (1.51 million); Cartoon Network (1.5 million); Nick-at-Nite (1.49 million); Fox News Channel (1.42 million); FX (1.26 million); and Spike TV (1.24 million).