USA Network Back on Top

As the northern climes lurch further into the dark freeze of January, the cable networks that specialize in original programming are beginning to come out of hibernation. Having launched one new series and returned two others for a truncated winter run, USA won the nightly cable chase for the first time since mid-August.

Per Nielsen live-plus-seven-day estimates, USA last week drew 3.15 million total viewers in prime time, of which 1.24 million were members of the 25-54 demo. Along with its WWE Raw showcase, which delivered 5.02 million viewers Monday night, the network put up some big numbers by way of its homegrown series.

The season 2.5 premiere of Royal Pains served up 4.43 million viewers on Thursday night, leading into the new one-hour dramedy Fairly Legal. Marking the first time USA has bowed a series in the winter months, the Sarah Shahi vehicle retained 88 percent of its set-up audience, averaging 3.88 million viewers in the 10 p.m. time slot. Two nights earlier, sophomore strip White Collar returned for a five-episode run, drawing 3.81 million viewers at 10 p.m.

After yet another fourth quarter defined by ESPN and its NFL and NCAA football coverage, the status quo has in many ways reasserted itself. USA is back in its accustomed spot, leading the likes of Disney Channel and TNT. Perennial reach vehicles FX, History and A&E are up there as well, while Discovery and TBS are competitive in the demos.

There is, however, something markedly different about last week’s cable ratings. A year ago, MTV had fallen out of the top 10 altogether; last week, the Viacom network finished first among viewers 18-49 (1.34 million) and 18-34 (1.07 million).

Much of MTV’s resurgence can be credited to the enduring oddity that is Jersey Shore. The valentine to all things Seaside Heights, N.J., clobbered the network’s past ratings records, drawing 8.87 million viewers on Jan. 20. Seventy percent (6.22 million) of Thursday night’s beachcombers were part of the 18-49 demo. On Monday night, a special installment of Jersey Shore whipped up 7.7 million total viewers, including 5.12 million adults 18-49.

The seismic impact of Snooki, JWoww and the rest of the orange-hued gang is so profound that it can be felt across the Viacom portfolio. Last week, no fewer than eight of the top 10 programs among viewers 18-34 ran on one of the MTVN brands, including a new installment of Teen Mom 2 and the premiere of the controversial scripted series Skins, as well as Comedy Central’s Tosh.0 and BET’s The Game.

MTV closed out the week fourth among total viewers, drawing an average nightly crowd of 2.08 million.

Non-ad-supported Disney Channel once again claimed second place in prime, averaging 2.39 million total viewers. TNT scooped up third place among all basic-cable nets (2.16 million/1.11 million 18-49s), while History sealed up the No. 5 spot on the week, drawing 1.88 million total viewers.

A week after ESPN delivered a staggering 27.3 million viewers with its coverage of the Jan. 10 Bowl Championship Series national title game, cable’s biggest sports-related draw came courtesy of Bristol’s pre-NFC Championship edition of NFL Countdown. The lead-in to Fox’s Bears-Packers showdown lured 2.99 million viewers in the Sunday 1 p.m.-3 p.m. time slot. As for live sporting events, TNT’s coverage of the Boston Celtics’ 109-106 victory over the Orlando Magic drew 2.62 million viewers Monday night. In the late-night game, the Lakers and Thunder retained 93 percent of their lead-in.

In its first post-pigskin week, ESPN finished 12th in prime, averaging 1.46 million viewers. The sports net also took ninth place in the three major TV demos.