Big News in TV’s Ratings Race

For the broadcast TV networks, audience erosion has been a fact of life since cable networks began catching on with viewers in the early 1980s. But, for the broadcast year just ended, with a hot programming hand, some help from new technologies and, perhaps most importantly, the Winter Olmpics, viewing of the major nets grew in prime time for the first time in a decade.

This time around, it was cable’s turn to deal with audience shrinkage, also for the first time in at least 10 years. Cable, however, was dragged down by the sagging ratings for news networks, which had benefited greatly the year before from interest in the presidential election, the inauguration and the death of Michael Jackson.

According to Nielsen, an average 22.2 million households in prime time viewed the four major networks during the first 51 weeks of the broadcast year ended Sept. 19, up 1  percent over 2009. It marks the only year since the 2000-01 season that the nets were in the plus column on combined ratings.

Ad-supported cable nets were viewed by an average 41.5 million homes in prime time during the same period, down 1 percent, ending a 10-year-plus growth streak.

According to Brad Adgate, svp, research at Horizon Media, a better-than-average program development year contributed to the network viewing gains. “All the networks had something to crow about,” he said, pointing to Fox’s Glee, ABC’s Modern Family, and CBS’ The Good Wife and NCIS: Los Angeles. The Winter Olympics on NBC helped as well, he said.

On the flip side, the economy has probably hurt cable viewing levels, said Adgate, citing a recent report from SNL Kagan that more than 700,000 cable households pulled the plug on their subscriptions in Q2, the first quarter ever to see paid TV accounts fall.

David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS, said that traditionally cable has relied on increased subscriber penetration, new channels and program development to grow ratings. But with penetration near full capacity and hundreds of channels available, he noted, the medium, like broadcasting, will now have to rely on solid programming for future gains.

“Collectively they really didn’t have a very good year in terms of programming …  and the networks did,” Poltrack said.

Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting, said without the Winter Games the nets collectively would be down about 2 percent in the ratings. Minus the Olympics, he contended, “it’s almost impossible to retain that level of strength.”

As for cable, added Wakshlag, extraordinary news events “drove interest in news and news viewing to really high levels. You don’t have that this year.” Run the numbers without the news networks (CNN, CNN Headline News, MSNBC, CNBC and Fox News Channel) and cable posts a 2 percent ratings increase for the year he, noted. “The entertainment side of the cable business is doing fine,” he said.

Meanwhile, newer devices like high-definition TV sets and DVRs are boosting viewership, executives say. According to Nielsen, 54 percent of homes are now equipped with HDTV sets.

Adgate noted that the significant ratings increases this year for big-event programs like the major awards shows, the Super Bowl and the World Series, still mostly on broadcast, were due at least in part to the improved viewing experience of HD.

Nielsen tracking shows that sports generally get about 20 percent more viewing in HD households while awards shows get 13 percent more viewing.

Also, DVR playback is mostly for network programming, per the Nielsen numbers. The top 10 most-recorded shows on broadcast received a collective boost of more than 20 ratings points, while the top 10 cable shows received about nine additional playback ratings points.