TNT Leads Q3 Cable Ratings

Oct 3, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Summer has long been a time cable TV programmers try hard to shine. During the third quarter of this year, those efforts paid off with some top-rated dramas, but many of the reality show entries shriveled in the sun.

TNT’s “The Closer” and “Wanted” topped the list of new original series, while top returning series included USA’s power trio of “The 4400,” “Monk” and “The Dead Zone.”

The scripted programs helped lead cable to best the top seven broadcast networks in terms of audience share (32.7 for broadcast, 60.9 for cable-widening from 37.4 and 56.5 last year).

“Viewers last season made it known they were beginning to tire of reality and were looking for good scripted dramatic programs,” said Tim Brooks, Lifetime’s head of research. “But when it came to summer, broadcasters went wall-to-wall reality and, predictably, didn’t do well, whereas cable had quite a bit of scripted.”

Gary Belis, spokesman for the Television Bureau of Advertising, countered that any comparison between broadcast and cable (which TBA calls “subscription TV”) during summer months is essentially meaningless.

“Broadcast networks typically go to the beach in the summer. That’s always been true,” he said. “When it’s broadcast’s best programming up against subscription TV’s best programming, that’s a more true picture.”

The basic cable networks were led by TNT, which bested both UPN and The WB among total viewers, a first for any ad-supported cable network. TNT’s summer was anchored by the debuts of “The Closer” (averaging 1.9 million adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research) and “Wanted” (1.6 million).

“TNT’s unprecedented victory over two broadcast networks during the past quarter demonstrates we have found a winning formula of dramatic entertainment that appeals to a large segment of television viewers,” said Steve Koonin, executive VP and chief operating officer of TNT and TBS.

“I can’t remember a summer when there was more original series on cable,” noted Brad Adgate, senior analyst for Horizon Media. “There was just a huge number of them.”

Several new reality shows crashed, however. Bravo’s “Situation: Comedy” and “Hidden Howie,” A&E’s “Intervention,” Sci Fi’s “Master Blasters” and ABC Family’s “Venus & Serena: For Real” were among the carnage.

One channel that continues to produce must-see cable reality is MTV, whose “Real World XVI” (averaging 2.3 million adults 18 to 49) dominated the list of returning series, and whose other reality shows “The 70s House” (1.4 million), “Laguna Beach” (1.7 million) and “My Super Sweet 16” (1.6 million) all enjoyed strong performances.

Viacom’s VH1 also produced a new reality success, with “Hogan Knows Best” (1.1 million).

Among networks, leader TNT was followed by USA, which was down slightly (5 percent), partly due to “The 4400” slipping about 29 percent in its second season after a blockbuster debut last year. The longtime TNT-USA race should soon tighten with return of World Wrestling Entertainment to USA.

“Wrestling alone will give it a couple of tenths in its prime-time average,” Mr. Brooks said. “Don’t think that’s enough to put USA past TNT, but I think it’s going to be a tighter race.”

Fourth-place finisher Spike TV, which just lost wrestling, is also about to feel the impact of the move to USA. Spike TV is up 33 percent this quarter, continuing a string of successful quarters due to “CSI,” “WWE Raw” and “Ultimate Fight Night.”

“Spike has got some challenges coming, because ‘CSI’ and wrestling have been their fuel, getting triple their prime-time average,” Mr. Brooks said. “So when you pull out wrestling, that’s probably going to deflate them out of the top 10. ‘CSI’ is a strong franchise, but they haven’t built things around it like TNT.”

Spike TV spokesperson Robert Pini said the network has a strategy to offset the loss of wrestling.

“WWE Raw [is] a mere two hours on our network and a franchise that is in steady decline,” he said. “With ‘CSI,’ original programming like our ‘Ultimate Fighter’ franchise and our movie acquisitions, we are confident that we will remain one of the top 10 networks.”

Fifth-place-finisher ESPN also has some challenges. Though the sports behemoth scored the top three most-watched programs in the quarter, thanks to a trio of September NFL games, the network was down 18 percent among adults 18 to 49, continuing a string of quarterly decreases. The loss is due to baseball and World Series of Poker coverage being down slightly, a spokesman said.

One of the lesser batting averages came from a network that, going into the summer, had one of the best launch records in cable: Sixth-place network FX debuted the most extensive programming slate in its history, with a docu-reality show (“30 Days”), a drama (“Over There”) and two comedies (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Starved”). Among them, only “30 Days” has been renewed. “Over There” started strong but has recently lost ground in the battle for viewers. The two comedies have underperformed.

FX can take heart in its returning fare, however. “Rescue Me” continued to perform well (1.8 million), as did the return of “Nip/Tuck” (2.0 million), which dropped only 6 percent in the third quarter.

“We had some really good stories to tell for the quarter,” said FX spokesman John Solberg, who pointed to increases in male demos due to “Over There.” “When you look at this network over its 11-plus-year history, we have never had a single quarter where we ranked No. 1 in any demo, and for August we ranked No. 1 on men 18 to 34. Now we’re looking at what will probably be the best fourth quarter in our history. I think we’re in pretty good shape.”

Another unique case was TLC, which like FX, has an interesting story behind a modest drop. TLC fell 8 percent this quarter. But TLC has lost 30 percent to 40 percent every quarter since this period last year. The shift could indicate the network’s ratings slide may be leveling off.

“They’re back to where they were before their big rise with ‘Trading Spaces,'” Mr. Brooks said.

Among the biggest movers, AMC enjoyed a 28 percent climb. BET was up 27 percent, partly due to success of their BET Awards and 25th anniversary marathon. “We’ve been stunting our syndicated programming, such as ‘Girlfriends’ and ‘The Parkers,’ and they’ve done really well for us,” said BET spokesman Michael Lewellen.

Sci Fi, thanks primarily to the success of “Ghost Hunters,” was up 10 percent.

Among the smaller networks, Hallmark Channel was up 38 percent and enjoyed its best third quarter yet, as did National Geographic Channel, up 78 percent. Oxygen enjoyed its highest-rated quarter ever, up 34 percent.

After ESPN, the steepest drop among major networks was a post-“Chappelle’s Show” Comedy Central, which fell 8 percent. “Even with all-time record ratings in 2004, we are still slightly ahead of 2004 year-to-date without ‘Chappelle’s’ third season,” noted Comedy Central spokesman Tony Fox.

Several networks that experienced ratings drops also cited Hurricane Katrina as a factor, which caused a major spike among news network viewership.

Nickelodeon once again ruled total day rankings (2.1 million total viewers, down 3 percent), followed by spinoff network Nick at Night (1.6 million, up 18 percent).