In Depth

Rough Time for Some

Not All Cable Nets Are Buoyed by Ratings Increase

Summer is usually a strong season for cable networks, but this year several networks endured a rocky third quarter.

With cable drawing viewers away from the broadcast networks, most quarters end with a long list of cable networks touting new ratings records. But during the third quarter this year, G4, CMT, MTV, TruTV, ESPN2, TLC and VH1 all suffered declines in total viewership of more than 15%.

Network executives said there were a variety of reasons for the falloffs. Some of the difficulties stemmed from competition with the Beijing Summer Olympics, which attracted record viewership while ad-supported cable was limited as a whole to a 2% gain in total viewers.

Interest in the presidential elections also siphoned off an uncommon number of viewers to the news networks. At the same time, the digital video recorder, which has taken a chunk out of the broadcasters’ live viewing, is having an increasingly pernicious effect on cable channels too.
In some cases, though, it was the nature and timing of programming that led to audience declines.

“We’re at the point now that there are some networks that are enjoying success and there are others that have some tired programming that’s getting a little bit old,” said Sam Armando, senior VP and director of research analysis and activation at Starcom. “The ones that did not offer anything new, or maybe did and nothing caught on, are the ones that are in a little bit of a downward trend and need to reinvigorate themselves with some new original programming.”
Mr. Armando said cable ratings have been rising for so long there’s a tendency to assume that everything in cable is going up.

The cable universe has become more competitive, with more networks shelling out for original programming, said Brad Adgate, executive VP for research at Horizon Media. While big networks can create shows that generate appointment viewing, he said, “It’s harder and harder to do” for smaller niche networks.

Young Male Demo

G4’s niche is young men, a difficult group to reach under the best of circumstances. During the third quarter, the network’s total viewership dropped 36% and its young adult viewership fell by 21%.

G4 President Neal Tiles said he is “obviously concerned” about declines of that magnitude, but noted they came after streaks of 33 consecutive months of household growth and 20 straight months of increases among men 18 to 34.

“We knew that would come to an end at some point,” Mr. Tiles said.

In addition to the Olympics and the elections, young men were being lured away by big increases in video game usage, he said. At the same time, when its target demo does watch TV, they’re being drawn to programming in high definition—an area where G4 plans to bulk up.
“As of December we’ll be moving towards an HD offering that will allow us to bridge that gap,” he said.

Mr. Tiles said the network is also making programming changes “to help us correct the ship.”
The network has acquired movies that fit its brand—“Fight Club,” “Enter the Dragon,” Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Road Warrior”—that it will package under the heading “Movies That Don’t Suck.” The movies should help cut down on the volume of reruns on the channel.

G4 is also expanding its “X-Play” show to an hour and planning specials that cover the launches of major video games. Also coming is the network’s “NinjaFest3,” featuring new episodes of the competition show shot in Japan.

CMT, down 29% in total viewers, was also hurt by the Olympics, said Mary Beth Cunin, VP for program planning and scheduling. DVR use on the network’s shows was up 7%.

Like many cable networks, “We rely so much on repeat product doing well,” Ms. Cunin said. “The DVRs help our premieres, but it doesn’t do much in the repeat world.”

To cut down on repeats, CMT has acquired more off-net shows. It had some success with “Nanny 911” and “Trading Spouses,” and launched “Extreme Makeover Home Edition,” which showed a 67% increase in its prime-time slot in its first few days on the channel.

Hit Earnhardt Movie

A year ago in the third quarter, the network had its highest-rated show ever in “Dale,” a movie about NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt. This year, the network didn’t air a movie in the third quarter but will air two in the fourth. CMT also just launched new seasons of “My Big Redneck Wedding” and “Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team,” which aired in the third quarter last year. The channel will debut “Hulk Hogan’s Celebrity Championship Wrestling” on Oct. 18.
“We wanted to really stack the deck for fourth quarter. Fourth quarter is more important to ad sales,” Ms. Cunin said.

MTV’s big hit “The Hills” dropped in viewers, contributing to its 18% decline.

“A combination of digital video recorder use and on-demand watching is unquestionably affecting ratings for all networks across the cable universe,” an MTV spokesman said. “A more accurate measurement of whether MTV content is connecting with the audience could be found with an aggregation of linear, DVR watching, on-demand viewing on our own site as well as other sites and mobile. Statistics like the fact that mtv.com had zero show streams in 2006 and will end 2008 with more than 700 million show streams demonstrate that alternative viewing is most likely affecting linear ratings.”

A year ago, VH1 had its big hit “Rock of Love” with Bret Michaels and “The Pickup Artist.” This year’s “I Love Money,” while successful, didn’t pick up all the slack. VH1 expects the fourth quarter to be better with a lineup that includes “Rock of Love Charm School With Sharon Osborne,” “Real Chance of Love” and “Scream Queens,” as well as a second season of “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.”

“Rock of Love” returns to VH1 in January.

For ESPN2, the Olympics was a factor in the ratings decline, as was a shortage of live events, according to a network spokesman. The channel showed fewer baseball games because it was following Barry Bonds’ pursuit of the home run record a year ago.

The Little League World Series drew lower numbers, and the WNBA playoffs were pushed into the fourth quarter. A year ago, a NASCAR race was delayed by rain and moved from ESPN to ESPN2, helping ratings.

Schedule Woes

TLC’s new programming slate from President Angela Shapiro-Mathes proved to be a bust, and she was dismissed by Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav in July. Third-quarter ratings finished down 16%. In September, however, ratings started trending up from July and August, and versus a year ago among women, driven by “Jon & Kath Plus 8” on Monday nights.

Sometimes a decline in total viewers isn’t something a network is concerned about. TruTV, which converted from its prior Court TV brand earlier this year, was down a whopping 18%, but General Manager Marc Juris said the transition strategy is working because young male viewers are up. TruTV’s ratings rose 6% among men 18 to 49.

“We’re actually delighted about the right viewers coming,” he said. Court TV’s viewers tended to be young and female, and while those viewers are leaving, there have been 13 straight quarters of growth among men 18-49 and eight quarters of growth among men 25 to 54. “Forensic Files,” a Court TV mainstay, is still in production, but has been relegated to Friday nights.

Mr. Juris said “The Smoking Gun,” which has added humor to the network’s verite-action-packed lineup, has been successful, as have series such as “Speeders,” “Most Daring” and “Black Gold.”

The network’s new male audience is popular with advertisers, including the big-spending movie companies, he said.

With most of its shows working, Mr. Juris said the network is producing more episodes of existing series. One new show, “Maui Rescue,” is about a crew that rescues tourists who wander into volcanoes and waterfalls.

“There’s lots of action, lots of expertise. It’s a world and a place you did not even know existed,” Mr. Juris said. “It’s also good to have their phone number.”