Despite turmoil in the industry throughout 1994 caused by heavy government reregulation, basic cable networks, as a category, chalked up another solid year in the Nielsens.

Taken together, the 30 ad-supported cable networks monitored by Nielsen jumped 4% in primetime ratings in 1994 compared to those of a year ago, and rose 3% in total-day ratings year to year.

“The real significance of these numbers,” says Bob Sieber, VP of audience development for the Turner Entertainment Networks, “is that while overall viewing has gone up by 3%, advertising revenues have shot up by a total of 16% for the first 10 months” of 1994. Sieber derives the revenue percentage from the 21 cable networks that supply advertising-dollar figures to the Broadcast Financial Management Assn.

Madison Avenue is paying more money to advertise on cable because “in many instances, the cable networks are putting on programming that’s comparable to the shows on the broadcast networks,” says Howard Shimmel, VP of audience research for the MTV Networks.

Shimmel cites regularly scheduled Sunday night National Football League games on TNT and ESPN as programming which harvests such huge ratings that it can generate cost-per-thousand revenues which approach what Fox and NBC charge for Sunday-afternoon NFL contests.

The only basic rate-card difference for NFL games is that Fox and NBC are available in more than 97% of U.S. homes, whereas ESPN and TNT, because they’re exclusive to cable subscribers and satellite dish owners, reach only about 65% of the population.

Advertising money follows hard on the heels of Nielsen ratings, and Sieber says that the ratings of the top-100 highest-rated cable-network programs in 1994 eclipsed the top 100 of a year ago by an average of 17%.

Strike side effects

One of the reasons for these increases, says Tim Brooks, senior VP of research for the USA and Sci-Fi Networks, is that the NFL games on ESPN and TNT pulled record ratings because sports fans became parched for programming when labor/management disputes destroyed the Major League Baseball season; similar disputes appear on the verge of torpedoing the National Hockey League season.

Highlighting the magnitude of football’s dominance of the Nielsens, 16 of the 20 highest-rated shows of 1994 were NFL games on either ESPN or TNT. The other four were O.J. Simpson-related events on CNN. The highest-rated cable movie of 1994 was TNT’s airing of the first three hours of the six-hour “Gettysburg” miniseries, which finished 25th overall, with a 7.4 rating on June 26. The second three hours of “Gettysburg” ran June 27 and came up with a 6.5 rating, putting it 32nd overall.

Sieber says rerun episodes of series originally scheduled by the broadcast networks are conspicuous by their absence among the highest-rated cable programs of 1994. Only one shows up in the top 100, a “Murder, She Wrote” hour on USA Jan. 17, which finished 92nd with a 4.5 rating.

And excluding the Sunday night football series, even firstrun series episodes don’t rate among the Nielsen elite – only the “Crossfire” half-hour on CNN July 6 breaks into the top 50, its 6.1 rating putting it in a tie for 38th.

Except for the “Murder, She Wrote” Jan. 17 hour, the only networks with series episodes that make the list of shows rated between 50 and 100 are 12 entries on CNN and ESPN. The CNN shows are two “Crossfire” half-hours, two “Inside Politics” half-hours and a “Larry King Live” hour. The ESPN shows are pro-football related: two “NFL Sportscenter” hours and five “NFL Primetime” hours.

The cable network that displayed the most impressive Nielsen growth in 1994 was A&E, which spurted from a 0.9 overall primetime rating in 1993 to a 1.1 in 1994 and climbed from a 1993 total-day rating of 0.6 to a 0.8 last year.

“The most dramatic impact on our schedule,” says Brooke Bailey Johnson, senior VP of programming and production for A&E, came from turning the hourlong “Biography” documentaries from a weekly offering to a five-a-week primetime series. Also reaping good numbers are the reruns of Universal’s “Law & Order,” which runs weeknights on A&E at 11 p.m., eastern time.

With most of the mass-circulation cable networks stepping up the production of firstrun programming, USA’s Brooks predicts that the category of basic cable will grow another 5% in the primetime Nielsens for calendar 1995. And that rating increase will fill the cable networks’ coffers with a fresh flow of advertising dollars, which is music to the ears of Wall Street.

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