Rating the Cable Networks

A season-to-date report card

Overall, the impact of cable in the broadcasting arena remains undeniable. Season-to-date (Sept. 23, 2002, to May 18, 2003) and based on cable networks measured by Nielsen Media Research, ad-supported basic cable grabbed a total 31.4 household rating/51 share in prime time—up 5 percent in ratings and two share points from the comparable period a year ago (29.8/49, Sept. 24, 2001, to May 19, 2002). By actual number of viewers—33.53 million—that’s an increase of 2.08 million.

The broadcast networks, in contrast, continue to decline in ratings, with 51.54 million viewers for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB, off 1.21 million, or 2 percent, from 2001-02.

“More networks, greater distribution and an increased first-run programming presence are three reasons why cable remains so prominent,” says Brad Adgate, svp/research director at Horizon Media. “With smaller cable networks also programming more aggressively, and a greater news presence this year [Fox News posted the biggest year-to-year ratings increase, with growth of 56 percent], the broadcast networks are facing even more competition.”

In a landscape now populated with more than 300 national cable networks, 86 regional networks, an additional 59 channels in the planning stages, and an estimated 40 million satellite or digital cable subscribers—roughly twice as many as just two years earlier— the added competition means that some of the larger and more established cable networks are also beginning to feel the heat.

“Fractionalization is having its toll on all broadcasting mediums and not just the six broadcast networks,” says Shari Anne Brill, vp/director of programming at Carat USA. “With so many more programming outlets, every network, even the mainstays, must be more ambitious than ever before to compete.”

With the broadcasting portion of the current upfront all but complete and estimated spending of $9.3 billion up considerably from last spring’s $8.1 billion, cable buying could result in similar increases. Last year, the cable portion of the upfront was $4.6 billion. This year, and based on what just happened on the broadcast end, estimates point to as much as $6 billion in cable spending. With that in mind, and with deals expected to close at a rapid pace, Adweek Magazines looks at the prime-time ratings of the 10 widest-distribution, ad-supported cable nets. Because ratings for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC were fueled in recent months by the war in Iraq, we narrowed our focus to entertainment-oriented networks. (Percentage change, in parentheses, pertains to this year versus the comparable year-ago period. All ratings are based on a total U.S. sample.)


Households: 1.6 rating/3 share (+14%), Viewers 2+: 2.24 million (+10%), Adults 18-49: 1.06 million (+5%), Adults 25-54: 1.12 million (+7%)

While there is no single first-run series that defines Turner Network Television (TNT), a potpourri of sports, original movies and miniseries, and off-network dramas—in particular Law & Order—has fueled the Atlanta-based net to No. 1 overall in prime time. Last year at this time, TNT was tied for second with sister network TBS, behind Lifetime Television.

“Strong series during the week, the NBA on Thursday and destination movies on the weekends are what defines TNT,” says Steve Koonin, evp/chief operating officer of TBS Superstation and TNT. “Unlike other networks that rely on the strength of one or two first-run series, our schedule is a more balanced combination of programming.”

With a hefty $350 million in original programming budgeted by Turner Broadcasting over the next few years, some of that investment will go toward TNT for upcoming miniseries Caesar, and remakes of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl, both slated for next season. The network has also just begun airing NBC’s Boomtown and acquired off-network rights to Judging Amy and Angel beginning this fall.

“When they said they knew drama, they weren’t overexaggerating,” says Adgate. “With a strong package of original and off-network programming, TNT remains the network to beat.”


Households: 1.4/2 (+8%), Viewers 2+: 2.06 million (+1%), Adults 18-34: 251,000 (-7%), Teens 12-17: 248,000 (+3%), Kids 2-11: 1.02 million (+1%)

With animated shows like SpongeBob SquarePants, The Rugrats and Jimmy Neutron in the mix, there is no denying the impact Nickelodeon has in kid’s entertainment. Combined with Nick-at-Nite’s classic off-network sitcom line-up (which begins at 9 p.m. and runs through 6 a.m.), the two brands together rank second overall behind TNT in total viewers and first among kids 2-11 in prime time. Although Nickelodeon/Nick-at-Nite is up as much as 8 percent over the comparable year-ago period (with 28,000 more viewers, on average, this season), not everyone is convinced pairing the brands is the best overall maneuver.

“Any household with kids under 11 is familiar with Nickelodeon,” says Kathryn Thomas, associate director of Starcom Entertainment. “They remain the dominant player in the kids’ marketplace in all mediums. But because it shares its broadcast window with Nick-at-Nite, the overall identity of the network is somewhat diluted.”

Adgate notes, “With spin-off network TV Land firmly established as the home of classic TV, Nick-at-Nite tends to get lost in the shuffle. You don’t really know what exactly their focus is. Considering Cartoon Network has found a way to program 24 hours, Nickelodeon could benefit if they followed that same path.”


Households: 1.4/2 (-12%), Viewers 2+: 1.86 million (-18%), Women 18-49: 566,000 (-14%), Women 25-54: 660,000 (-14%)

Even though ratings are down, and by double-digit proportions, the home of “television for women,” Lifetime, still remains in the top three-rated channels (based on household ratings). Season- to-date, Lifetime ranks third in prime time behind TNT and Nickelodeon/Nick-at-Nite (and second behind Nickelodeon in total day). In an attempt to broaden its image and bring back some of the lost audience, a second night of regularly scheduled programming on Saturday will feature new dramas 1-800 Missing and Wild Card beginning this August. Also to come: more original made-for movies, including three this summer (More Than Meets The Eye: The Joan Brock Story, Going For Broke and Defending Our Kids), and specials reuniting the casts of The Golden Girls and Designing Women, two off-net Lifetime staples.

“Lifetime has done an excellent job of branding the network and finding a focus,” notes Laura Caraccioli-Davis, vp/ director of Starcom Entertainment. “But I really think the influx of reality on the broadcast networks, which is heavily female-driven, has had a negative impact on them.”

Adds Brill: “A lot of Lifetime’s recent programming moves look more defensive than offensive. As much as they have had dramas on Sunday for the past several years, it’s the original movies that keep them afloat. They need to expand their focus past abused women and disease-of-the-week movies.”


Households: 1.2/2 (-8%), Viewers 2+: 1.87 million (-5%), Adults 18-49: 898,000 (-2%), Adults 25-54: 910,000 (-5%)

After losing the top-rated wrestling franchise to TNN a few years ago, the future of USA Network was marred by uncertainty. But thanks to a wide array of original and off-network product like dramas JAG, Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the network is now a retooled force to reckon with in prime time, ranking third overall in this survey in total viewers and adults 18-49.

“I think Doug [Herzog, USA president] has done a phenomenal job with original dramas Monk and The Dead Zone,” says Carriccoli-Davis. “And they’ve definitely got people talking again. Look how ABC jumped at airing repeats of Monk this season.”

Adgate adds, “USA has repositioned themselves well without wrestling, and they have received a great deal of critical acclaim thanks to first-run product like Monk and Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story. With an aggressive slate of new programming in the works, they remain one of the more competitive forces in cable.” Notable first-runs next season include weekly drama Peacemaker and miniseries Traffic. Talks are also underway for potential updated versions of ’70s classics McCloud and Baretta.


Households: 1.2/2 (-14%), Viewers 2+: 1.81 million (-11%), Adults 18-49: 931,000 (-11%), Adults 25-54: 923,000 (-11%)

Ratings are down, but so is the median age for TBS’ comedy block: 33.2 years old this season, off four years from 2001-02. With young adults—men, in particular, the channel’s target demo—tuning in and Seinfeld renewed through 2011, off-net comedies, signature movie showcases and original programs like Ripley’s Believe it or Not will remain the focus next season.

“TBS is your one-stop comedy block,” says Koonin. “By 2004, we will have five of the nine successful comedies launched in syndication over the last 14 years on our schedule,” including Seinfeld, Friends, Home Improvement, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Everybody Loves Raymond.

“It wasn’t that long ago when sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies came to mind when you thought of TBS,” notes Adgate. “By populating its line-up with the hottest sitcoms, TBS has made great inroads at finding a younger audience. That’s a real positive for advertisers.”

With a considerably less serious focus than sister station TNT, look for Trading Spaces-like series House Rules next season, more episodes of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, original made-for movies like National Lampoon’s Thanksgiving Family Reunion and the broadcast premieres of 19 theatrical titles.

“By renewing Seinfeld for eight more years, their focus is loud and clear,” Thomas says. “What TNT is to drama, TBS is to comedy. All things considered, that’s a good thing.”


Households: 0.8/1 (+14%), Viewers 2+: 1.23 million (+15%), Adults 18-49: 710,000 (+16%), Adults 25-54: 737,000 (+18%)

Not only has the little show that could, Trading Spaces, put The Learning Channel (TLC) on the map, but ratings overall are up year over year by double digits, thanks to the channel’s “Life Unscripted” programming brand.

“The real beauty of TLC is, not only has it found its niche thanks to Trading Spaces; it has established a number of other shows like While You Were Out, What Not To Wear, A Wedding Story and A Baby Story that fit perfectly into their brand,” Thomas says. “TLC’s advantage is having the type of programs viewers of all ages can relate to. Most of us understand what it’s like refurnishing our homes, changing our wardrobes, getting married and having babies.”

Adgate says, “TLC is the unexpected success story in cable. And there isn’t a watercooler out there that isn’t buzzing with conversation about Trading Spaces. While the broadcast networks continue to find ways to attract viewers on Saturday, TLC’s Trading Spaces has become appointment television. Even the show’s host, Paige Davis, is now a household name.”


Households: 0.8/1 (-11%), Viewers 2+: 1.09 million (-17%), Adults 18-49: 532,000 (-16%), Adults 25-54: 579,000 (-17%)

Unlike some networks which find that one show can ignite an entire schedule, or others that develop an overall theme, Discovery right now has no particular programming that stands out. On average, 224,000 less people are tuning in this season, translating into demographic declines of 16 and 17 percent, respectively, among target adults 18-49 and 25-54.

“Too many spin-off networks [Discovery Kids, Discovery Times, Discovery Wings] has diluted who Discovery is,” Thomas says. “Right now, I’m not exactly sure what their image is.”

Adds Adgate, “Although ‘Shark Week’ is a theme Discovery is synonymous with, it’s not an ongoing individual series or block of programming viewers have at their fingertips every week. The success of any network depends on finding the right shows people will watch on a regular basis.”

Looking ahead and hoping to stop the bleeding, Discovery will introduce a new marketing theme, “Entertain Your Brain,” with an estimated—and record—1,000 hours of new programming next season. New series will include Monster House on the newly themed “Monster Monday” and Ancient Evidence, a series attempting to answer history’s riddles through science.


Households: 0.8/1 (-11%), Viewers 2+: 1.05 million (-14%), Adults 25-54: 389,000 (-15%), Adults 55+: 602,000 (-12%)

Fueled by possibly too much of a good thing, the home of Biography, Arts & Entertainment (A&E), is losing steam. Year over year, the older-skewing, male-oriented net is off by an average 168,000 viewers (14 percent), with double-digit demo losses across the board. Even adults 55+, which define the network, are down 12 percent.

“I think too much of a reliance on Biography and some bad programming choices [including repeats of The View] has negatively impacted A&E’s image,” Caraccioli-Davis says. “Is it a niche network, or is it broad appeal? And who exactly are they trying to talk to?”

With a variety of programming ranging from original series like Biography, Cold Case Files and American Justice to off-network repeats of Third Watch, Columbo and Crossing Jordan, A&E’s focus remains on crime-related and forensics-oriented programs.

“Because of an over-reliance of crime-solving-type dramas on the broadcast networks and competition from Court TV, A&E is in a slump,” Brill says. “To rise above it, [A&E] will have to look outside its theme and become more widely focused.”


Households: 0.7/1 (-12%), Viewers 2+: 1.06 million (-14%), Men 18-34: 199,000 (-15%), Men 18-49: 386,000 (-15%)

Three years ago, and with the help of its World Wrestling Entertainment acquisition, country-themed The Nashville Network became the younger and hipper The National Network. With ratings down and another name change to The New TNN having no impact, it’s back to the drawing board, as The New TNN this month becomes Spike TV. Aimed at men 18-34 with a focus on sports, movies, fitness, finance, cars and women, the revamped net’s first programming announcement was a partnership with GQ magazine for the Men of The Year Awards.

“Considering going from country to a more young adult focus didn’t work, it’s obviously not easy redefining your image,” Brill says. “Now after changing their name—twice, in fact—and already shifting the focus, they’re hoping to attract a new audience.”

Adgate says: “The one advantage Spike TV will have is access to the Viacom library. And as long as there is wrestling, they still have a platform to work from. Considering the difficulties cable networks have repositioning themselves, TNN included, a programming switch of this magnitude will not happen overnight.”


Households: 0.7/1 (no change), Viewers 2+: 960,000 (+10%), Adults 18-34: 479,000 (+25%), Adults 18-49: 607,000 (+19%), Teens 12-17: 237,000 (-2%)

MTV has always been the destination for music videos and youth-oriented programming like The Real World and Road Rules, but the addition of The Osbournes last season had viewers tuning into the network in droves. A third, and potentially final, season of the oddball Ozzy and company kicks off June 10. Also coming up: another season of former ABC series Making The Band and new reality shows Surf Girls, Duets and Who’s Got The Game?, hosted by Magic Johnson.

By the numbers, TV’s hippest network remains a red-hot entity, with ratings among target adults 18-34 up by a significant 25 percent. While teens 12-17 are down 2 percent, 84,000 more viewers on average are tuning in this season.

“This is a network that from day one has established itself as a solid and successful trend-setting, youth-oriented brand,” Brill points out. “And they have always done a tremendous job catering to the youth of America.”

“MTV has always realized that there was more to programming the network than just music videos,” notes Adgate. “And because of a diversified menu of regularly scheduled programs, they are well-positioned for the future.” Marc Berman is a contributor to Mediaweek.