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.

On a percentile basis, the month’s biggest gainer was the aforementioned CNBC. Also making great strides in February was E!, which boosted its prime time deliveries by 25 percent to 719,000 viewers.

Other gainers were: CMT (up 22 percent to 403,000 viewers); Oxygen (up 12 percent to 501,000 viewers) and truTV (up 10 percent to 1.18 million).

CNN took the biggest hit, falling 54 percent in prime, with an average draw of 535,000 viewers, while Hallmark Channel continued to lose ground, dropping 41 percent to 770,000 viewers. Viacom saw churn at four of its networks, as TV Land fell 29 percent to 632,000 viewers, Spike TV dropped 24 percent to 923,000 viewers, VH1 fell 20 percent to 644,000 viewers and Comedy Central fell 11 percent to 886,000 viewers.

Minus Snooki and The Situation, a Jersey Shore-free MTV fell back to earth, losing 8 percent of its prime time audience with an average draw of 874,000 viewers. (In January, MTV’s deliveries were up 26 percent to 1.02 million viewers.) Meanwhile, BET continued to buck the Viacom trend, growing 8 percent with an average nightly audience of 777,000.

Again, the Olympics strafed a host of top-flight cable nets. Discovery Channel was down 19 percent in prime with 1.05 million total viewers, while Travel Channel saw 10 percent of its audience hit the road, averaging 475,000 viewers. Female friendly nets Bravo and Lifetime were down, as the NBCU property dropped 16 percent to 697,000 total viewers and the latter dropped 11 percent to 967,000.

Also reporting double-digit drops were: National Geographic Channel, down 12 percent to 414,000 viewers, and ESPN2, down 16 percent to 508,000.

Tops among the core TV demo were: USA, which drew 1.24 million viewers 18-49, down 22 percent; TNT (1.06 million, down 13 percent); TBS, down 10 percent with 981,000; A&E (735,000, down 1 percent); History (a record 674,000, up 19 percent); FX (671,000, down 16 percent); ESPN (641,000, down 4 percent); ABC Family (585,000, down 10 percent); Comedy Central (572,000, off 2 percent) and truTV (up 17 percent to 563,000).

Non-ad-supported Disney Channel moved up a notch, claiming second place among all basic cable nets with an average draw of 2.33 million viewers in prime, up 2 percent versus the prior-year period, when it delivered 2.28 million. The Mouse maintained its hold on the core kiddie demos, averaging 974,000 viewers 6-11 (up 3 percent) and 821,000 ‘tweens 9-14 (up 3 percent).

Disney Channel’s high-water mark for February occurred on the night of the 14th, as the network’s latest original movie, Starstruck, scared up 6.48 million viewers in the 8 p.m. time slot.