NEW YORK — The champagne is flowing at TBS, Cartoon Network, Learning Channel, Sci Fi Channel, CNN, Court TV and Comedy Central among the top 20 networks because they’ve all surged in the Nielsen primetime ratings by double digits for the month of August.
By contrast, the crepe-hangers are out in force at USA, Disney Channel, TNT, ESPN, MTV and Fox Family Channel because these networks are off by double digits for the same month, compared with the same period a year ago.
The cable industry tends to pay close attention to the primetime Nielsen ratings during the dog days of August because so many channels go on the attack with original series and specials, promoting them heavily against the (mostly) rerun schedules of their broadcast rivals.
TBS’s 11% gain is fueled by theatrical movies including “As Good as It Gets,” “Pretty Woman,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Hunt for Red October”; the 3.9 rating in cable homes harvested by the remake of “High Noon,” starring Tom Skeritt; and steady performers like Atlanta Braves baseball and the successful weekly series “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.”
Cartoon Network, which also rose by 11% year to year, tends to go up in the summer months because, with school out, most kids stay up late. Cartoon’s best primetime performers are its firstrun half-hours such as “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Powerpuff Girls,” with golden oldies like “Tom & Jerry” and “The Flintstones” also frequently pulling better than a 2 rating in cable homes.
Learning Channel, which climbed by 13%, has ramped up its scheduling of original documentaries, which complement the network’s popular regular series like “Trauma: Life in the E.R.” and “Paramedics.”
Sci Fi, also up 13%, delivers a mix of movies, off-network series like “Outer Limits” and “Fantasy Island” and a destination night of original series on Friday consisting of “The Invisible Man,” “Farscape” and “Lexx.”
A solid August by CNN in primetime couldn’t save the job of Rick Kaplan, the president of CNN U.S., who got the ax last week. CNN was up 14% mainly because the public is starting to get interested in the Gore vs. Bush race for the presidency.
Court TV shot up by 100%, from a 0.4 rating in cable homes in August 1999 to a 0.8 this August. No other network came even close to doubling its audience in the same period, a feat that the network can chalk up to the still-popular reruns of “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Cops,” and the nightly original series “Crime Stories.”
The 17% gain harvested by Comedy Central is due to movies and to original series like the ongoing “South Park,” “The Man Show” and “Strangers With Candy” and the newcomers “Strip Mall” and “Turn Ben Stein On.”
The following lower-rated networks — ranked by their overall Nielsen numbers — also showed increases: Fox News Channel (up 50%), TV Guide Channel (up 20%), Food Network (up 25%), MSNBC (up 67%), Bravo (up 33%), Travel Channel (up 50%) and Odyssey Channel (up 50%).
Among the decliners, USA has a good-news/bad-news story. The good news: USA tied for first place among all cable networks in primetime with TBS for August. But, not so good, USA dropped 13% from its much-stronger No. 1 finish a year ago. The network’s new series such as “War Next Door,” “Manhattan AZ” and “Cover Me” have so far not caught on with USA’s viewers.
The Disney Channel, completely dependent on the audience appeal of family movies, which fill network’s primetime schedule week in and week out, is down by 15%.
TNT, which fell by 11%, is also heavily dependent on movies in primetime, although it has spent more money than any other network to promote an original series. “Bull,” TNT’s big-budget drama series about young Wall Street hotshots, is so far off to only a modest start on Tuesday at 10.
Despite a batch of National Football League exhibition games and a high-rated NASCAR race in primetime, ESPN dropped by 20%, victimized in part by mostly sluggish Major League Baseball numbers.
Other networks singin’ the summertime blues — in order of the their overall ratings — are MTV (down 20% in primetime for August), Fox Family (down 30%), TV Land (down 13%), the WGN superstation (down 25%), BET (down 17%), VH1 (down 17%) and Weather Channel (down 25%).