Three of television’s most powerful franchise shows began to square off on cable last week, and some observers expect all three to continue to thrive.
“CSI” last week began airing in prime time on Spike TV. The show settled into its regular time slot last week after two weeks of promotion and a week-long marathon that vaulted the network to the top of the cable rankings.
Spike has scheduled “CSI” at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., going head-to-head with the original “Law & Order” on TNT and “Law & Order: SVU” on USA.
During the 8 p.m. time period all of the shows were strong, with “CSI” averaging a Nielsen Media Research household rating of 2.0 through last Wednesday, holding its own with a 2.2 for “Law & Order” and a 1.9 for “SVU” (“Law & Order aired only twice, because TNT aired a movie that night).
“CSI,” the newcomer, did even better with the demos, beating both shows among adults 18 to 49 (1.2 rating versus 0.9 for both versions of “Law & Order” and among men 18 to 49 (1.1 versus 0.7 for “Law & Order” and 0.6 for “SVU.”
On its first day last week, “CSI” on Spike at 8 p.m. outdelivered both The WB and UPN in adults 18 to 49.
During its marathon week, when “CSI” was practically the only thing Spike aired, the network enjoyed its highest-rated and most-watched week ever, averaging 2 million viewers for its total programming day. It had an average delivery of 2.56 million total viewers in prime time, up 120 percent from the same week a year ago.
Despite the big numbers, Spike’s rivals didn’t appear worried last week.
“There was enough room for `L&O’ on TNT when `SVU’ joined USA as L&O hit its highest numbers ever last season,” said Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer at Turner Broadcasting.
“There will be enough room for `CSI’ too. There’s always enough room for quality programming-and more good programs on cable will take audience from broadcast, narrowing the difference between top-tier cable nets and broadcast nets,” he said.
A USA spokesperson said that since the launch of “CSI,” ratings for “SVU” have been stable.
“I know there’s enough viewers to go around for programming they like to see,” said Shari Anne Brill, director of communications and programming services at Carat USA.
“These shows have their own following, and viewers are seeing them as reasonable alternatives to other cable offerings and, at this early stage, to a staggered start of the network season,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming at Katz Television Group.
“We tend as viewers to go with what we know and what we like,” Mr. Carroll said. He likened what the cable networks are doing to the successful strategy employed by independent stations in the early days of TV. He summarized that strategy as, “Give the viewers what they want, have it consistently in the same time period and have it consistently there whether they tune in on Monday, Wednesday or Friday.”
Some observers questioned whether “CSI’s” ratings have topped out, having been boosted by Spike’s promotional efforts, or whether they would grow as more viewers become aware that the hit show is on a channel they otherwise might not watch.
Either way, having a ratings generator of that magnitude has to help Spike carve out space for itself beyond WWE wrestling.
Spike is gearing up to take advantage of the opportunities “CSI” might present, but it doesn’t have many shows ready to go for the rest of this year. The network plans to launch “I Hate My Job,” with the Rev. Al Sharpton; “The Club,” a reality series on opening a night club; and “Untold,” a series of documentaries about sports figures.
“I think if they can consistently maintain those numbers, it puts them more aggressively in the game, because it gives you a platform to promote the other things that you’re doing and that’s always a plus,” Mr. Carroll said. “If you know you’re going to have consistent viewers, the potential to build out other things that are unique to Spike comes into play.”
During its first week “CSI” was attracting a large number of men (it was the No. 2 show among men 18 to 49 on ad-supported cable Wednesday, trailing only The Weather Channel’s coverage of Hurricane Ivan), but it was attracting even more women viewers.
During that week, about 54 percent of the show’s audience on Spike was women. About 60 percent of CBS’s audience for the show was women.
Is that a problem for a channel that calls itself the first network for men?
“I don’t think anyone at Spike is upset that they’re also attracting women,” Mr. Carroll said. ” Co-viewership is just fine. They’re not hurt by that.”
“I have a feeling `CSI’ will get more males because it’s on such a male-positioned network,” Ms. Brill added.