Audiences tune out top networks

For cable TV, May proved to be the cruelest month, at least in the Nielsen ratings: Nine of the top-10 ad-supported networks declined in number of total viewers, five by double digits.

“The programming for May on both broadcast and cable was boring,” said Tim Brooks, exec VP of research for Lifetime. “There were no huge series finales on the broadcast networks — the last episode of ‘King of Queens’ is not exactly comparable to the conclusion of ‘Seinfeld.'”

Brooks’ analysis of the data shows that the seven broadcast nets plunged by 7% in household ratings for May, and cable as a category dropped by 3%.

“I think if the cable networks realized how soft broadcast would be in May, they would’ve scheduled more original movies and more original episodes of series,” Brooks said.

The most prominent cable networks certainly got whacked. Although TNT finished first among cablers for May, it was down 15% from May ’06, hurt by weak viewership of many NBA playoff games. The teams that keep advancing are from smaller markets like San Antonio, Utah and Cleveland; the Los Angeles Lakers got eliminated in the first round by Phoenix, and the New York Knicks failed to make the playoffs.

Sluggish NBA ratings also helped damage the performance of ESPN, the third highest-rated net, which suffered a worse dropoff in total viewers from May to May — 29% — than any of the 67 other cablers whose audiences get measured by Nielsen.

Second-place USA was down 4% in primetime, and fourth-place TBS dipped 5%. The Disney Channel, which is not traditionally counted with the others because it’s commercial-free, finished between USA and ESPN, rising 2%. Fifth-place Fox News was the only top-10 ad-supported network that didn’t decline, winding up flat at 1.3 million average primetime viewers.

The 18 highest-rated individual programs in May were either the Monday-night World Wrestling Entertainment free-for-alls on USA or NBA Playoff games (nine on TNT, one on ESPN). The only movie to crack the top 50 among ad-supported networks was “Sweet Home Alabama,” which drew 3.6 million viewers on May 19 and another 3.5 million on May 20.

From the sixth highest-rated network on down, the following, listed in order of overall finish, were up in primetime by double digits: A&E (up 30%), Sci Fi Channel (up 22%), Court TV (up 38%), AMC (up 16%), TLC (up 13%) and VH1 (up 34%).

Also, MSNBC (up 43%), Speed (up 58%), CNN Headline News (up 19%), Oxygen (up 35%),, CNBC (up 31%), MTV2 (up 42%) and Golf Channel (up 66%).

And, Discovery Science (up 21%), Nicktoons (up 10%), G4 (up 15%), Style (up 68%), Military Channel (up 59%), History Intl. (up 48%), ESPN News (up 13%) and Fuse (up 96%).

The networks that went in the other direction, plummeting by double digits in primetime, are Cartoon Network (down 16%), Nick at Nite (down 17%), FX (down 25%), MTV (down 13%), TV Land (down 11%), CNN (down 10%) and Animal Planet (down 10%).

Also, Lifetime Movie Network (down 17%), the Weather Channel (down 12%), GSN (down 17%), Discovery Health (down 14%), WE TV (down 12%), Noggin (down 11%), Biography Channel (down 17%) and ESPN Classic (down 23%).

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