NBC’s Olympics Put the Squeeze on Cable

The Olympics took a bite out of ad-supported cable last month, as the draw of the Winter Games on NBC helped drive down nightly ratings by a significant margin.

Per Nielsen ratings data for the period spanning Feb. 1 to Feb. 28, prime time deliveries for the top 40 cable networks were down 7.2 percent versus the year-ago period. The Olympics contributed to a major loss of GRPs at nearly half of the major ad-supported networks, as 19 channels suffered double-digit declines in total viewers.

Prime time coverage of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics averaged 24.4 million viewers on NBC, up 21 percent from the 20.2 million the broadcaster averaged during the Torino Games.

A mere six cable nets enjoyed increases of 10 percent or more, including CNBC, which doubled its nightly deliveries. The NBC Universal business news network averaged 638,000 viewers in prime, up 101 percent from its February 2009 tally (317,000).

CNBC made the most of its Olympics affiliation, devoting 100.5 hours to the Games. The network carried a number of niche events, including curling and biathlon, and over the course of the month lifted its core demo by 137 percent, drawing 313,000 adults 25-54.

With just 41 hours of Olympics coverage spread out over 17 days, USA Network did not enjoy a Winter Games lift, as its nightly deliveries were down 16 percent. USA did win the month outright, averaging 2.95 million viewers in prime, of which 1.32 million were adults 25-54 (down 21 percent versus February 2009). The cable net also took first among viewers 18-49 (1.24 million, down 22 percent) and 18-34 (571,000, down 19 percent).

USA notched its biggest numbers with its ever-reliable mix of original series, WWE wrestling and NCIS repeats. The Feb. 11 installment of Burn Notice served up 6.32 million total viewers at 10 p.m., per Nielsen live-plus-seven-day ratings data, while WWE Raw drew 5.56 million viewers on Feb. 8 and 5.5 million viewers on the first of the month.

Also drawing a crowd was USA’s newest scripted effort, White Collar, which averaged 4.75 million viewers on the night of Feb. 9. Collar bested USA’s best February delivery for NCIS, as the Feb. 15 installment of the Mark Harmon procedural drew 4.72 million viewers.

TNT took second place on the month, dipping 13 percent with an average prime-time delivery of 2.23 million viewers. The Turner net posted its best demo delivery among the 25-54 crowd, averaging a second-place 1.07 million (down 17 percent), while taking second among 18-49s (1.06 million, down 13 percent).

The NBA All-Star Game accounted for ad-supported cable’s second-largest audience in February, as 6.95 million viewers tuned in to TNT on Feb. 14 to watch the pro hoops expo. (MSNBC led all comers with its coverage of the preliminary-round hockey matchup between USA and Canada (8.22 million viewers).

Fox News Channel dropped a notch to third place, averaging 2.17 million viewers in prime, down 10 percent from its February 2009 average. The news net was more stable among its core demographic, as adults 25-54 slipped 3 percent to 534,000.

Nick at Nite boosted it nightly numbers by 11 percent, averaging 1.78 million total viewers. Fifth place went to TBS, which fell 9 percent to 1.66 million total viewers. The Turner net finished in the medal hunt across all three major TV demos, taking the bronze among adults 25-54 (830,000, down 12 percent) and viewers 18-49 (981,000, down 10 percent), while silvering with 18-34s (560,000, down 9 percent).

Rounding out the month’s top 10 were: A&E, which improved 3 percent in prime with an average draw of 1.56 million viewers; History, which enjoyed its strongest month ever, growing 17 percent with 1.44 million viewers; ESPN, which saw its prime-time average inch up 1 percent to 1.39 million viewers; ABC Family, which slipped 2 percent to 1.35 million; and Cartoon Network, which fell 16 percent to 1.32 million viewers.