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Turning to Cable for News

Mar 31, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Advertisers take note: Even before the start of the war in Iraq, news had joined the kids, movies and sports genres in an audience migration from broadcast to ad-supported cable.
That’s the edge-of-upfront contention from Jack Wakshlag, Turner Broadcasting’s head of research, who reviewed the first-quarter ratings picture from Turner headquarters in Atlanta in a teleconference last week for a small group of reporters.
“In first quarter ’01, broadcast had the majority share of [news] viewing in the persons 2+ and adults 25 to 54 [categories],” Mr. Wakshlag said. “In the first quarter ’02 that started to shift. In the first quarter ’03 to date, it’s shifted strongly. This is before any war coverage is factored in.”
The growth of news viewing on cable has been driven by news leader Fox News Channel and by CNN, according to the Turner data. Even before the war, two first-quarter news stories-such as the the recovery of kidnapped teenager Elizabeth Smart-were boosting cable-news viewing levels.
With 102 television channels now available in the average American’s home, the “key” for cable networks, according to Mr. Wakshlag, is to be one of the approximately 14 channels among which the average viewer will customarily surf.
One of the best pieces of news for Turner Broadcasting came from not from Mr. Wakshlag but from MTV Networks , which released its own data showing that TNT, one of the Turner networks, was about to overtake Lifetime TV reign at the top of the quarterly basic cable rankings. For the quarter through March 23, TNT posted an average 1.1 rating in prime time among both total viewers and 18 to 49, up 22 percent and 10 percent, respectively, from the same quarter last year. Lifetime slipped to a 0.8 in total viewers and a 0.7 in adults 18 to 49, dropping 27 percent and 22 percent, respectively.
(A Lifetime spokeswoman made the point that because of war coverage, Lifetime is “down, but so are a lot of people, including TNT and TBS.”)
The great imponderable for the quarterly ratings race is war coverage. At press time Fox News Channel was in third place for the quarter with a 0.9 in prime time, up 50 percent over the same quarter last year, and although it remained unlikely that FNC would surpass TNT, it was possibile. Nickelodeon was in second place in the prime-time cable ratings with a 1.0.
Mr. Wakshlag also had good news for basic cable: “This is the first time that ad-supported cable has beaten the four broadcast networks in first quarter,” he said. The first quarter ended officially March 30. “This is the first-ever February sweeps victory for ad-supported cable. It’s only 0.3 of a share point [over the broadcast Big 4], but it’s still a victory.”
The broadcast networks are losing “roughly 2 share points a year to cable and cable seems to be growing roughly 2 share points a year,” Mr. Wakshlag said. “At the end of the day, we’re talking about a long-term trend for broadcast. Their audiences keep shrinking, and advertisers keep paying more for less. Sooner or later that equation has got to start to shift.”
Cable networks that are down significantly for the quarter, according to Turner research, include Lifetime, ABC Family, A&E, USA and TNN, while networks that have posted gains for the quarter include TLC, FX and Sci-Fi.
According to MTV’s research, for persons 2+ in prime time, A&E and TNN were down 17 percent each, ABC Family was down 40 percent and USA was down 10 percent in quarter-to-quarter comparisons, while TLC was up 20 percent, FX was up 25 percent and Sci-Fi was up 50 percent.
Mr.Wakshlag pointed to the reliance on movies at ABC Family, Lifetime and USA as reasons for their ratings declines. TNT and TBS, of course, also rely on movies, but Mr. Wakshlag contended that they won’t run into the same problem in the future because of their heavy investments in top movie product.
In comparisons between the Big 4 broadcasters and ad-supported cable, it must be noted that there are 58 Nielsen-measured basic cable networks and 248 nonmeasured ad-supported networks. Although the Turner data includes all of the ad-supported cable networks, both measured and nonmeasured, in its comparisons with the Big 4 and Big 7 broadcasters, those 58 networks account for about 90 percent of the ad-supported-cable total that the Turner research aggregates, Mr. Wakshlag said.