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Cable Tops Broadcast for Another Quarter

Mar 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In the face of media fragmentation, most of the largest cable networks have continued to add viewers in the first quarter.

That growth is one reason the gap between viewing of ad-supported cable and broadcast continues to grow, said Jack Wak-shlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting. In the first quarter so far, cable has attracted a 51.8 share of prime-time household viewing, compared with 45.9 percent for the seven broadcast networks. This marks the third consecutive first quarter in which cable viewing has topped broadcast viewing.

During the February sweeps, cable for the first time drew more households than did the broadcast networks, and Mr. Wakshlag predicted that, barring something extraordinary, broadcast would never again dominate in households during a sweeps period. He also predicted that cable will beat broadcast for a second straight television season. He expects cable to finish with a 52.2 share and broadcast a 45 share. Season to date, cable has a 51.8 share versus broadcast’s 45.7 share.

In addition to winning households, Mr. Wakshlag expects cable to win in total viewers for the first time this season. He also expects it to win among adults 18 to 34. Cable and broadcast will be nearly even among viewers 18 to 49, he predicted.

While the story of increasing viewership for the growing number of cable options is well known, Mr. Wakshlag said he has heard some media buyers talking about the larger cable networks encountering the same kind of viewership loss to smaller channels that the broadcasters appear to be suffering.

To the contrary, he said, top-rated TNT marked its 19th consecutive quarter of growth among adult viewers 18 to 49 and its delivery in the first quarter was a record total-day average of 744,000 adults 18 to 49 and a record 756,000 adults 25 to 54.

Including TNT, Mr. Wakshlag said, the top 10 cable networks are up 7 percent in prime-time viewers, the top 20 networks are up 5 percent and the top 25 are up 4 percent.

“No matter how deep you go in the cable world, as long as you’re comparing cable networks that existed a year ago, cable networks are growing,” he said.

Mr. Wakshlag said cable is growing at broadcast’s expense because broadcast networks have chosen not to carry sports and cable is catching up with scripted programs. “They’ve cost themselves the young viewers. I think that once you lose the young viewers, it’s really hard to get them back,” he said.

Six of the top 10 networks in viewers are up from a year ago, including TNT, Cartoon Network, Lifetime, Fox News Channel, ESPN and Spike. USA, TBS and Sci Fi are down. Nick at Nite, the No. 3 network, wasn’t measured separately a year ago.

Eight of the top 10 networks showed gains among 18- to 49-year-olds: TNT, TBS, USA, Spike, Lifetime, ESPN, Sci Fi and Comedy Central. MTV and Discovery showed declines.

Mr. Wakshlag offered quick looks at why some cable networks are gaining. He said TNT has received a boost from “Law & Order,” which is racking up record numbers, while A&E is being helped by original shows including “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” “Growing Up Gotti,” “First 48” and “Intervention.” He said 80 percent of Comedy Central’s gains are coming from variations of “Blue Collar Television.”

On March 20, Comedy Central’s roast of Jeff Foxworthy, hosted by the rest of the “Blue Collar” crew, drew nearly 6.2 million viewers. Spike TV’s gains are coming from “CSI,” which was strong enough to offset weakness in WWE wrestling.

By contrast, Mr. Wakshlag noted that the viewership of the broadcast networks continues to decline, with a total loss so far this season of 457,000 adults 18 to 49. At the same time, cable viewership is up 1.2 million. “More people are watching TV, and they’re watching more TV because of cable,” he said. “Broadcast no longer drives growth in viewership in television. TV is flourishing despite the broadcast share loses.”

Sci Fi had the two new original shows that drew large numbers of viewers 18 to 49: “Battlestar Galactica” and “Stargate: Atlantis.” Both shows racked up huge gains versus their time periods a year ago, up 244 percent and 194 percent, respectively.

Other top shows included MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” Spike’s “Ultimate Fighter” and A&E’s “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”

Returning series didn’t fare as well in the first quarter. While the season premiere of FX’s “The Shield” was up 16 percent from a year ago in adults 18 to 49, MTV’s “Real World XV,” USA’s “Monk,” MTV’s “Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica” and Comedy Central’s “South Park” showed declines.

In terms of monthly reach, an important metric to ad buyers, TNT, sister network TBS and USA Network topped both The WB and UPN year to date, and ESPN, FX, Spike and Discovery topped UPN.

“For at least two broadcast networks that do get broadcast [cost-per-thousand] premiums, there is no reach advantage,” Mr. Wakshlag said. “The reach advantage falls to cable networks like TNT and TBS.”

Mr. Wakshlag said ad dollars are shifting to cable, but not at the same rate as viewing. Year to date, cable has attracted 31 percent of the ad dollars spent in prime time, up from 22 percent in the 2000-01 season.

“It’s still not where it should be if you’re looking to follow the eyeballs,” he said. “That imbalance needs to be made up and should be made up if the advertising market operates in a rational fashion.”

He noted that broadcast’s ratings are bolstered by noncable households, which have lower incomes, less education and more unemployment.

“Broadcast delivers a shortage of upscale homes, so when you pay a broadcast CPM premium to CBS, you are paying extra to overdeliver in downscale broadcast homes. That’s part of the reason money is shifting to reach focused cable networks.”