Veteran originals combined with a handful of new shows helped propel cable to a strong summer and its best third quarter in history.
Despite NBC’s Olympics ratings juggernaut and a broadcast pledge to aggressively stock summer with originals, during the third quarter cable held a 56.5 percent household prime-time share over broadcast’s 37.5, a 4 percent increase from last year, according to Nielsen.
Unlike last summer, however, much of cable’s strength stemmed from the ongoing growth of established series. According to Nielsen’s season averages of persons 2+ from Memorial Day to Labor Day, for example, new episodes of USA’s “Monk” grew from 4.3 million viewers in 2003 to 5.1 million in 2004. Likewise, FX’s “Nip/Tuck” grew from 3.4 million viewers last summer to 3.6 million this year, and Discovery’s “American Chopper” grew from 2.7 million to 3.7 million. Even USA’s “Dead Zone,” which had been on a decline last year, bounced back and rose from 2.7 million viewers last year to 3.5 million in summer 2004. Other cable events, such as MTV’s “Video Music Awards,” Fox News Channel’s convention coverage and football on ESPN, also made ratings waves.
“The reason cable is doing well is because sophomore shows are gaining,” said Tim Brooks, Lifetime’s senior VP of research. “The only one of the last year’s cable hits that didn’t do that was `Queer Eye.”‘
Among the freshman shows, USA’s limited series “The 4400” was the undisputed champion, garnering an average 5.9 million viewers during its original four-episode, six-hour run.
Sources said USA is in active negotiations to order more episodes of “The 4400.” The network had no comment.
At A&E, “Growing Up Gotti” enjoyed significant press attention. But among its new reality shows, A&E’s “Dog the Bounty Hunter” is faring even better so far, averaging 3.2 million viewers for its first two episodes versus 2.4 for the first five episodes of “Gotti.” “Gotti” airs Mondays at 9:30 p.m., “Dog” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
For Sci Fi, the network scored a direct hit with its “Stargate SG-1” spinoff “Stargate Atlantis,” which averaged 3.1 million viewers in its Friday 10 p.m. slot. FX found, meanwhile, a potential dramatic companion to “Nip/Tuck” with “Rescue Me,” which saved 2.8 million viewers in its Tuesday 10 p.m. slot.
“It continues to show that cable really grows during the summer,” said Betsy Frank, executive VP of research for MTV Networks. “And it gives us a terrific head start on the fall season.”
Among other cable debuts, the recently renewed half-hour series “Dr. 90210” on E! was seen by an average of 700,000 viewers during its primary runs this summer; TNT’s limited series “The Grid” drew 3.2 million; HBO’s “Entourage” 1.9 million; Bravo’s “Blow Out” 800,000; TBS’s “Outback Jack” 2 million; and GSN’s “Extreme Dodgeball”400,000.
Network by network, the biggest gainers coincided with the biggest hits. Looking now at the third quarter only, USA, home of “The 4400” and “Monk,” gained 27 percent over last year, and FX, which has “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me,” gained 34 percent.
Still, some networks managed gains without the benefit of breakout hits. Propped by the growing popularity of “Chappelle’s Show” and “Reno 911,” Comedy Central increased 34 percent. Hallmark Channel and ABC Family also showed gains, 46 percent and 31 percent, respectively.
The biggest dropoff was felt by TLC, down 28 percent, following the plummet of some of its signature makeover shows. E! also decreased, dropping 20 percent.
Among smaller networks, National Geographic Channel, which is in about 50 million homes, jumped 62 percent, Discovery Health, in 54 million homes, gained 45 percent and GSN, in about 55 million homes, gained 29 percent. BBC America, whose hit “The Office” has wrapped for good and has run only in repeats since last year, fell 21 percent.
As for next summer, Mr. Brooks predicted, cable will enjoy a significant growth spurt.
“What’s happened in prior years is the presence of Olympics [has] kept the nets from falling,” he said. “But the year that follows ratings tends to fall double to make up for that.”