NEW YORK — After years of almost automatic jumps in primetime Nielsen ratings, cable networks showed clear signs of slowing down in 1999.
What leaps out of the annual year-to-year comparisons of the 39 cable networks monitored by Nielsen is that more than half of them are either down in primetime or flat.
For example, a year ago, only four cable networks fell off in the primetime Nielsen ratings (contrasting 1998 vs. 1997 among cable homes). This year, 10 networks have slipped in primetime, including a nerve-wracking four of the top 10: TNT (down 5%), Nickelodeon (also down 5%), ESPN (off by 6%) and Discovery (down 8%).
The figures come from a detailed report of the Nielsen numbers by Turner Broadcasting System.
Another 10 networks have been flat in the primetime ratings in 1999, encompassing such previous high-fliers as Lifetime, the Learning Channel and superstation WGN.
But Bob Sieber, VP of audience development for Turner Broadcasting, said these declines are not unprecedented: In 1996, seven networks fell off in the primetime ratings out of the 30 channels being monitored by Nielsen. Only eight cable networks displayed Nielsen gains in 1996, Sieber added, and an additional 15 were flat year to year.
For 1999, the industry is stressing the positive news that 17 networks have shot up in the primetime Nielsens this year. The biggest gainers among the 20 highest-rated networks are MTV and the History Channel.
MTV has risen 29% in cable homes (from a 0.7 primetime rating in 1998 to a 0.9 this year), propelled by such successful regular series as “The Real World,” “Road Rules,” “Celebrity Deathmatch” and “House of Style.”
History Channel is up 33% (from a 0.6 last year to a 0.8 this year), anchored in primetime by flagship series “History’s Mysteries.”
Gavel web locks ’em in
The best year-to-year story is Court TV’s. By jettisoning its nightly talking-heads primetime shows in favor of reruns of “Homicide” and “Cops,” Court TV zoomed up by 300% (0.1 to 0.4). But at a 0.4 primetime rating in cable homes, Court TV does no better, over all, than a tie for 30th place (with the Weather Channel, Animal Planet, MSNBC and Food Network).
Another noteworthy achiever is Bravo, which has soared 50% in primetime (0.2 to 0.3). Bravo attributes its gains to firstrun series such as “The Awful Truth” satirical half-hour and “Inside the Actors Studio,” and specials like the eight-hour “Count of Monte Cristo” miniseries with Gerard Depardieu and “Circus of Tomorrow.”
The Weather Channel and the Food Network have each risen from a 0.3 to a 0.4 in primetime this year, a 33% leap. Four networks — ESPN2, E! Entertainment TV, the TV Guide Channel and the Fox News Channel — clicked up by 25%, each growing from a 0.4 to a 0.5.
News nets down
Among the networks that stumbled in the primetime Nielsens in 1999, four declined by 20% or more: CNN Headline News (off by 33%), CNBC (down 29%), Fox Family (a 25% slide) and CNN (a 20% dip).
CNN and its Headline News sibling are down in 1999, their spokesmen said, because the previous year was chock-full of major events, led by the daily diet of the Clinton sex scandal, which generated more viewer tune-ins. CNBC acknowledged that it was off in primetime, but said its business-day coverage in the morning and afternoon generated double-digit growth in 1999. Fox Family is still in transition, trying to whip up an audience through movies and reality shows in primetime after relying on popular rerun series such as “Diagnosis Murder.”
The highest-rated individual program this year was MTV’s coverage of the 1999 Music Video Awards. Eleven of the next 12 highest-rated shows were Sunday-night National Football League games on ESPN.
The most popular year-round series on cable by far was Monday night World Wrestling Federation contests on USA: Eight of them finished among the 22 highest-rated programs of 1999.
The No. 1 original movie of 1999 was TBS political thriller “First Daughter,” which harvested a 6.9 rating in cable homes Aug. 15. No. 2 was TNT’s “Purgatory” Western, which clocked in at a 6.6.
The highest-rated theatrical movie on cable in 1999 was 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” on TBS, chalking up a 6.4 rating in cable homes. The next nine theatricals, in order, were “Pretty Woman” (TBS, a 6.1 rating in cable homes), “Michael” (TBS, 5.5), “Absolute Power” (TBS, 5.4), “Striptease” (TBS, 5.3), “The American President” (TNT, 4.5), “Lethal Weapon” (TNT, 4.3), “Vegas Vacation” (TBS, 4.3), “Sister Act” (TBS, 4.2) and “The Shawshank Redemption” (TBS, 4.1).