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Cable gains vs. Big 4 disputed

ABC exec sez July sweeps numbers not telling whole story

The July sweeps have reinforced the pattern over the last few years of cable networks’ pulling audience shares away from the Big Four broadcast networks.

For the first 25 days of the July Nielsen rating book (July 9 to Aug. 2), basic cable as a category averaged a 44.2 share in primetime, which is 11.9% higher than the 39.5 share during the comparable period in 1997, according to the CAB (Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau). The 44.2 number is cable’s highest July share ever.

By contrast, the CAB says that ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox combined averaged only a 44.9 share in the July sweeps, down 6.3% from the 47.9 share of July a year ago. That’s the lowest-ever figure for the broadcasters, the CAB says.

The CAB says cable’s share gains are proof positive that the Big Four are making a mistake in relying on reruns during the summer, whereas the cable networks are stocking up on high-visibility movies and original episodes of series like “La Femme Nikita” on USA and “South Park” on Comedy Central.

But the ratings of cable networks are not up by much year-to-year in July, says Larry Hyams, VP of primetime and sales research for ABC. “Viewers are not flocking to cable over the summer,” he says.

A Nielsen share is a reflection of people who are actually watching television, so broadcast-network observers say it shouldn’t come as a surprise that summer viewers will shift away from a rerun to, if not an original program, at least a familiar movie on cable.

And Hyams says the networks haven’t abandoned fresh programming during the summer, pointing to Fox’s new episodes of “Melrose Place” and ABC’s two new series “Maximum Bob” and “Whose Line Is It Anyway.”

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