Cable snares webs

Viewers keep turning to off-net offerings

Another year, a further blurring of the lines between broadcast and cable TV.

That theme emerges from conversations with three of the top research executives in cable: Turner’s Jack Wakshlag, MTV Networks’ Betsy Frank and Lifetime’s Tim Brooks.

“We’re in a single television world now,” said Frank. “People aren’t making distinctions between the broadcast networks and the cable networks anymore.”

Wakshlag points to TNT’s defeat of UPN in primetime among people 18 to 49 during the May 2004 sweeps as one sign that the gap has closed between the top ad-supported cable networks and the smaller broadcast webs like UPN and the WB.

Brooks said the push by the biggest cable networks to beef up their schedules with more original programming has helped keep them from losing viewers to the raft of newer cable channels that keep coming onto the scene. These newbies seem to be pulling their audiences from the broadcast networks, whose overall ratings fell again in 2004.

According to Turner’s analysis of the Nielsens, only three top-10-rated cable networks lost primetime viewers (aged 2 and older) in 2004: Sixth-place Cartoon Network (down 5%), seventh-place Lifetime (down 6%) and eighth-place Fox News Channel (down 3%).

Among those 18 to 49, only two showed declines year to year in primetime: Fifth-place Lifetime (down 5%) and ninth-place MTV (down 1%). Similarly, only two of the top 10 slipped among those 25 to 54: Fifth-place Lifetime (down 7%) and tenth-place TLC (down 26%).

Nielsen bragging rights in 2004 go to TNT, which has repeated its first-place primetime showing of a year ago in total viewers, those 18 to 49 and those 25 to 54. USA could also pound its chest, solidifying its hold on second place in viewers 25 to 54 and gaining 18% more viewers in the category. And USA vaulted from third to second place this year in total primetime viewers (up by 20%) and in people 18 to 49 (climbing by 14%).

Rounding out the top five among total primetime viewers in 2004 behind TNT and USA were ESPN (up 8%), Nick at Nite (no comparison possible because Nielsen lumped Nickelodeon with Nick at Nite last year) and TBS (flat).

TBS finished third among people 18 to 49 (up 6%), ESPN was fourth (up 8%) and Lifetime fifth (down 5%).

Among viewers 25 to 54, ESPN would up third (up 6%), TBS fourth (up 3%) and Lifetime fifth (down 7%).

MTV took the honors among viewers 18 to 34 in primetime (although it was down down 1% from a year ago). In second was TNT (up 2%), followed by TBS (up 7%), ESPN (up 11%) and USA (up 8%).

Aliens abduct viewers

Brooks said no original cable series captured the attention of the culture in 2004 the way “South Park” did six years ago on Comedy Central or “The Osbournes” did on MTV two years ago.

USA came up with the highest-rated original-series rookie in 2004, “The 4400,” about alien abductees who try to fit back into society. The show averaged 2.9-million viewers 18 to 49 for its five episodes. Rounding out the top five in viewers 18 to 49 were TBS’s “The Real Gilligan’s Island” (1.973 million for six episodes), FX’s “Rescue Me” (1.935 million for 13 hours), MTV’s “Till Death Do Us Part” (1.921 million for seven episodes) and MTV’s “The Ashlee Simpson Show” (1.834 million for eight episodes).

Adding newcomers such as “The 4400” and “Rescue Me” to returning original series like FX’s “The Shield” and USA’s “Monk,” Frank said that “there appears to be a renaissance of scripted series in cable,” particularly in light of the glut of reality shows that are chewing up more of the broacast-primetime schedules.

Cable’s goal is to create what Frank calls “water-cooler shows” that get people talking. She said that three new broadcast-TV series this season fit the water-cooler-show category: “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” on ABC and “CSI: NY” on CBS.

“Everyone talks about the golden age of television in the 1950s and ’60s,” said Wakshlag. “But I would argue that with all of the original shows on broadcast and cable, the golden age is happening right now.”

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