USA Is Poised to Topple Its Rival

Dec 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Thanks to World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Monday Night RAW,” USA Network is set to overtake longtime rival TNT for the first time in five years in the basic cable ratings.

With only two weeks left in the fourth quarter, USA is on the verge of besting TNT’s drama programming juggernaut in both total viewers and adults 18 to 49-which hasn’t occurred since 2000. USA hasn’t beaten TNT in either category since 2002.

The NBC Universal-owned network has averaged 2.6 million prime-time viewers to TNT’s 2.1 million, according to Nielsen Media Research. The margin among viewers 18 to 49 is closer-1.2 million for USA, 1 million for TNT. Ratings analysts said there is very little chance TNT could reverse the outcome with its remaining scheduled programming this quarter.

“We love it. We’re very excited about it,” said USA President Bonnie Hammer, who pushed NBC Universal to woo wrestling away from Spike TV and back to her network, the franchise’s former longtime home. “I put my butt on the line for this. I wouldn’t say it’s vindication, but I would say it’s a feeling of satisfaction. We not only kept the wrestling ratings but increased the ratings because of our knowledge of the show and our comfort working with [WWE Chairman Vince] McMahon.”

Lifetime head of research Tim Brooks agreed wrestling was key for USA, but noted the network was strong to begin with.

“Clearly wrestling has boosted them, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have strength elsewhere,” Mr. Brooks said. “They were in a close heat with TNT before; this just put them over the top.”

TNT is still the leader year to date, up 5 percent from last year.

“We look at the business over the period of the year,” said Steve Koonin, executive VP and chief operating officer of TNT and TBS. “I’m sure it’s going to be a good race next year. Our strength has been our second and third quarters and that strength continues. Wrestling did not fit our brand, and we made a conscious decision to turn it down, and we feel very good about where we are.”

USA’s growth has come partly at Spike TV’s expense. Spike is down 16 percent for the quarter (all quarter figures are quarter to date) among total viewers. For the year Spike’s story is very different-the network for men is the biggest gainer among the top 35 networks, up 29 percent.

Both networks are running below ESPN, which traditionally rushes to the top of the fourth-quarter ratings due to college and NFL football.

“ESPN has very wide fluctuations. It’s normal for ESPN to lead [in Q4],” Mr. Brooks said. “If anything, their lead is narrower this year than in the past.”

TV Land on the Move

Other movers this quarter include TV Land, which is up 34 percent among total viewers, 9 percent among 18 to 49, thanks to a trio of 1970s sitcoms lighting up its prime time.

Hallmark Channel has also soared, up 28 percent among total viewers, thanks to producing more original movies and doing ABC Family-style holiday stunting.

Oxygen is up 10 percent for the quarter and 14 percent for the year. “Oxygen has been fortunate to sustain growth every year since its inception, but 2005 has been our best year yet,” said Debby Beece, Oxygen’s president of programming. “It’s been our strategy to focus on originals, and this year it’s paid off like never before.”

The loss of “Chappelle’s Show” hasn’t wounded Comedy Central much. The network is up 5 percent among total viewers and flat among 18 to 49 for the year.

AMC is down for the quarter, but for the year it’s up 8 percent among total viewers and 16 among 18 to 49 due to a shift toward younger-skewing programming.

All the news networks are sharply down from last year due to a lack of campaign coverage. Top-ranked Fox News took the biggest hit, down 23 percent among total viewers. CNN is down 19 percent and MSNBC is down 17 percent.