Holiday-themed programming left cable programmers with plenty of yuletide cheer last month, with several networks enjoying sharp viewership increases for their movie marathons and holiday shows.
During its seventh annual 25 Days of Christmas marathon, ABC Family had its best month ever-ranking fifth in prime time among viewers 18 to 49 in December-and was the most-watched basic cable network during the marathon’s opening week, according to the network. “We’re right up there swinging with the big boys, and that’s extraordinarily gratifying,” said Julie Piepenkotter, the network’s senior VP of research.
Hallmark Channel broke records with a foursome of original holiday movies-such as “A Boyfriend for Christmas”-that posted some of the highest numbers in the channel’s history. Lifetime enjoyed time slot increases, with its Every Day is a Holiday movie marathon up 15 percent over last year.
“Networks that did Christmas movie marathons went through the roof,” said Tim Brooks, executive VP of research at Lifetime. “After the [election] campaigns, this was a year that if you had on something light and upbeat and encouraging during December, people just flocked to your network.”
Even TBS, which aired its eighth annual marathon of “A Christmas Story,” gained on last year’s performance of the marathon-up 28 percent among the 18 to 49 demo, according to the network.
For the rest of 2004, a flock of “feel-good networks” gained viewers, while news channels and some pop-culture brands lost traction.
“Feel-good networks are doing very well,” Mr. Brooks said. “It’s a pretty dire picture in the world out there, and you’re really seeing viewers looking for television to fulfill its traditional role of being an escape.”
In 2004 ABC Family (up 31 percent), Hallmark Channel (18 percent), Oxygen (22 percent), Comedy Central (23 percent) and National Geographic Channel (77 percent) all posted year-to-year prime-time gains among viewers 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Conversely, cable news nets experienced an audience drain following the ratings boost during coverage of the Iraq war. CNN and MSNBC each were down 34 percent for the year, while Fox News dropped 13 percent.
The Fox News drop was tempered by the channel’s strong performance during the election season, when the network’s debate and election-night coverage competed with ESPN’s NFL games to land the channel among the 10 most-watched basic cable programs for the entire year among total viewers.
Among other networks, the sports channel ESPN and the general-interest USA Network had good years (up 7 percent and 14 percent, respectively-significant considering the channels were already among the top-ranked)-as well as the decidedly darker FX (up 20 percent). A&E also had a terrific year, jumping 34 percent, thanks to its new wave of headline-generating reality programming.
But pop culture-based channels had a middling 2004. E! and BET were down 9 percent each. MTV showed no growth, even though its annual “Video Music Awards” was the top-rated program in the demo. Though VH1 and Bravo fared better for the full year-gaining 3 percent and 25 percent, respectively-both networks (along with E!, BET and MTV) were down during the fourth quarter of 2004 compared with the same time frame in 2003: VH1 down 14 percent, Bravo down 21 percent.
TLC’s annual numbers (down 25 percent) reflected its well-documented slide due to declining interest in the makeover reality genre, and its fourth quarter fared even worse-down 40 percent from 2003. Fellow Discovery net Animal Planet was down 9 percent, while Discovery and Discovery Health Channel posted gains (12 percent and 39 percent, respectively).
Overall, cable enjoyed continued growth, handily drawing a larger share of the overall audience than broadcast for the third year in a row. More significantly, 2004 marked the first year that more adults 18 to 49 watched cable than broadcast.