Cable Late-Night Growth Outpacing Prime

Aug 7, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Powered by popular programming such as Adult Swim and Nick at Nite fare, late-night on basic cable is not only growing but has outpaced prime time during the past five years.

The growth is apparent in both ratings and households using television, and is higher than late-night growth among the broadcast networks.

The increase proves that despite competition from the Internet, movies and video games, television use is still growing, and that late-night in particular is a market for expanding viewership.

“To have a long-term gain like this of any period is remarkable,” said Tim Brooks, a television historian and Lifetime’s senior VP of research. “Prime time gaining at all is remarkable given all the competition, and late night is taking off. A parallel thing happened to early morning levels back in the 1970s.”

Several cable networks now are beginning to turn more attention to programming late-night to take advantage of the daypart’s potential.

Among households using television, prime time for broadcast and cable has grown 2 percent in five years compared with 8 percent for late night.

The increase in average ratings is even higher. Late-night basic cable programs are up 33 percent since 2001, compared with a 6 percent decrease for broadcast networks (for prime, cable has also grown at broadcast’s expense—cable is up 20 percent, broadcast down 15). “Prime time is an artifact that goes back to the earliest days of broadcast television that’s increasingly irrelevant,” Mr. Brooks said.

In the 1950s and ’60s, networks didn’t air commercials after midnight. In the 1970s, broadcast late-night became the domain of talk shows, with dramas and comedies running between 8 and 11 p.m., when networks charged prime-time advertising rates.

Then in 1985, MTV Networks saw an opportunity to counterprogram the talk-show glut. It launched the Nick at Nite programming block, consisting of reruns of classic TV shows, setting off a starter pistol for a race to program the daypart that continues today.

Just last month, Sci Fi Channel announced its first original late-night block. Sci Fi Channel President Bonnie Hammer said the expansion is a logical next step for networks that have reached a certain level of maturity and want to expand their schedule with inexpensive programming.

“We’re at this point where we no longer have to put all our production dollars into prime time,” she said. “Also, we can produce late night less expensively than prime.”

Mr. Brooks, whose network launched its first original scripted comedy series, “Lovespring International,” in late-night, said cable network advertising rates are another factor.

“It’s a really rich daypart for advertising dollars,” he said. “Virtually all cable networks charge prime time rates—not for 8 to 11, but for 6 to 12 or even 5 to 12. So if you can get the same premium dollars for a program that runs at 11 p.m. as you can for one in traditional prime and can get a better rating because the competition is less, why wouldn’t you premiere it in late-night?”

Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner, said the trend is part of an overall dissolution of the traditional clustering of prime-time viewing.

“The differences in dayparts are getting smaller, the differences in seasons are getting smaller and people are watching TV everywhere,” he said. “It’s not that people are moving from prime to late-night. They’re watching as much prime time as they can, and now watching more outside of prime as well.”

Though broadcasters have lost ratings and HUT levels from the daypart compared with cable, talk shows continue to dominate their late-night schedule. In 1991 and 1992, CBS launched an experimental late-night block called Crimetime After Primetime, offering such shows as “Silk Stalkings” and “Forever Knight.” The network dropped the block in 1993, when David Letterman brought “The Late Show” over from NBC.

“For whatever reasons, the broadcasters are not exploiting this period,” Mr. Brooks said.

Catherine Lord, senior manager ratings publicity for Disney-ABC Television Group, said she doesn’t think broadcasters are missing an opportunity.

“A lot of the growth has to do with the fact late-night is just now being programmed,” she said. “I would love to see what a drama would do at that time of night on broadcast, but I don’t think they’d do well. I don’t think [broadcasters] are missing anything; they just have a different focus.”