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Facing clear Nielsen evidence that their primetime ratings have flattened, ad-supported cable networks are scrambling to attract more viewers.

Mass-circulation cable webs are setting up new spinoff channels to increase so-called shelf space and are drawing up blueprints to produce more original programming and buy higher-visibility reruns.

But the problem, according to Betsy Frank, senior VP of Saatchi & Saatchi, is that “the pie of total viewership is not getting bigger. What all the new networks are doing is fragmenting the market and cutting more slivers into the same basic cable pie.”

As a result, cutthroat competition to lure existing cable households through strong firstrun and off-network programming will be the grand design for the rest of the decade.

Cable webs “have gotten away with relatively inexpensive program formats,” says David Poltrack, senior VP of CBS. A big jump in budgets for original series and movies will cut into the profitability of those networks.

Although they enjoyed steady, uninterrupted ratings growth since the early 1980s, cable webs as a category were flat in the Nielsens for 1993, managing only to duplicate the 13.8 overall primetime rating they chalked up in ’92.

In fact, 24-hour Nielsen ratings show that basic cable grew 4%-5% in 1993. But the industry tends to home in on primetime because it’s the daypart that yields the biggest revenues.

From 1992 to 1993, according to analysis by Poltrack, only two of the 11 highest-rated ad-supported cable networks increased their Nielsen primetime ratings: WTBS, to 1.5 from 1.4, and MTV, to 0.4 from 0.3.

Conversely, according to Poltrack’s figures, three cable networks fell off in primetime during the same period: ESPN, to 1.4 from 1.5; CNN, to 0.6 from 1.0; and the Family Channel, to 0.5 from 0.6. CNN’s decline is explained by unusually heavy viewership during the 1992 presidential election.

USA (1.4), TNT (1.1), Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite (0.7), Lifetime (0.6), Discovery (0.6) and A&E (0.5) were unchanged year to year in the primetime Nielsens, Poltrack says.

One way for cable webs to increase their ratings in 1994 and beyond is to invest more money in original programming. TNT’s elaborately produced and heavily promoted made-for-cable movie “Geronimo” racked up a gaudy 6.6 Nielsen rating among cable households Dec. 5, propelling it to a higher rating than any other basic cable movie in 1993, theatrical or made-for.

And original programming dominated the top-rated cable events of 1993, from Sunday night National Football League games on ESPN and TNT to the annual “Music Video Awards” show on MTV.

King is king

The highest-rated individual program in 1993 was another original, the special 90-minute edition of “Larry King Live” on CNN Nov. 9 featuring a debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement between Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot. Within the CNN coverage area, the Gore-Perot debate scored a humongous 18.1 rating.

Bob Sieber, VP of Turner Entertainment Networks, acknowledges that “original production and fresher off-network product” are vital to the future growth of TNT, TBS and the other Turner channels.

Among reruns, hourlong dramas tend to perform better on cable because, as Poltrack says, they’re not as prevalent as they used to be on the broadcasters’ primetime schedules. People addicted to drama and action series are increasingly turning to cable because the broadcast networks are commissioning fewer of these expensive shows.

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