Cable networks, coming off their highest-rated week in history, are building toward a Nielsen faceoff with the broadcast networks on the eve of fall-season primetime premiere weeks.

Propelled by the whopping numbers chalked up by such special-event cable programming as Lifetime’s “Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story,” the ESPN baseball game in which Cal Ripken Jr. set the record for most consecutive games, and the “MTV Music Video Awards,” the basic-cable networks as a category averaged a record 20.2 primetime rating during the week of Sept. 4-10.

That’s 25% higher than the 16.2 rating chalked up by basic cable for the same week a year ago. Conversely, the four broadcast networks combined fell 13% year to year, from a 37.1 rating for that September week a year ago to a 32.2 this year.

Of course the broadcast networks argue that they were still scheduling repeats – except for “NFL Monday Night Football” on ABC, the “Lorenzo’s Oil” theatrical on NBC and new episodes of “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Nowhere Man” on UPN – on the night Lifetime debuted “Almost Golden.”

And no one denies that in the past cable networks used to humbly crawl under the porch for a month or so beginning in mid-September when the broadcast networks launched promotional cruise missiles to usher in their fall schedules.

“But this year cable is not lying down and playing dead,” says Bob Sieber, VP of audience development for the Turner Entertainment Networks.

For example, TBS ran the “Colorado River Adventure” special with James Taylor on Sept. 14; TNT ballyhooed a football biodoc called “Joe Montana: The Fire Inside” on the 12th and Lifetime hyped the basic-cable premiere of the Glenn Close-Jeremy Irons theatrical “Reversal of Fortune” on the 11th. USA slotted one of its highest-profile original movies, “The Colony,” with John Ritter on Sept. 13, and this week USA kicks off the first episode of its highest-rated returning series “Silk Stalkings” and of its most promising new series, “Forever Knight.”

It’s not only propulsive Nielsen gains that have fueled these bold programming strategies. Betsy Frank, executive VP of Zenith Media Services, says that because the four broadcast networks are putting so much of their emphasis this season on targeting young adults, cable subscribers outside the boundaries of that demo may start searching out alternative programming.

And the leading alternative, by far, is cable. Cable networks as a whole harvest almost as high a rating in primetime (a 15.9, season to date), on average, as the five other alternatives combined: independent TV stations (an 8.0 Nielsen rating), the United Paramount Network (3.6), the pay-TV networks (3.1), public broadcasting (2.2) and the WB network (1.9).

“If all the broadcast networks are offering you night after night is the same sitcom about urban singles, only with a different cast, that competing movie on the cable network might start looking awfully good,” says Tim Brooks, senior VP of research for the USA network.

Cable would undoubtedly regard the exodus of masses of older subscribers away from the broadcast networks toward the cable webs as a mixed blessing: Madison Avenue tends to disdain adults 50 and over as rigid, unalterable shoppers who hate even the thought of changing their brand of toothpaste or breakfast cereal.

Elder power

But Sieber says the old folks watch a lot more TV than younger people do, so household ratings would go up for many of the cable networks, which would be a plus on Wall Street.

Sieber adds, however, that cable is also harvesting a healthy crop of young adults attracted to a record volume of original movies, series and specials being churned out by cable networks convinced that their future lies in ramping up production at ever increasing rates.

The cable networks are buying and producing better programming across the board, says Frank, because “they can afford it. They’re bringing in all this new money from an exceptionally strong advertising market.”

And as better programming generates higher ratings, what Doug McCormick, president and CEO of Lifetime, calls “the halo effect” kicks in. More viewers will see the promos for an original movie like “Almost Golden,” which Lifetime ran throughout its schedule for a number of days before its Sept. 4 cablecast.

Those exposures played a role in the 7.9 rating racked up by the biopic, placing it second only to a 1990 USA original movie, “The China Lake Murders,” among the top-ranking made-fors in the history of cable.

To Bill Croasdale, president of the national-broadcast division of Western Intl. Media, “Almost Golden” is Exhibit A in his thesis that “investing in original programming is the smartest thing a cable network can do.”

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