Successful 2008 for cable networks

Schadenfreude is alive and well in the cable universe, with a number of outlets gleefully touting best-ever ratings that have come, at least partly, at the expense of the troubled broadcast networks.

“USA takes 2008 ratings crown with best year in cable history,” read a boisterous USA Network press release put out in early December, touting the NBC U cable outlet’s leading primetime deliveries of viewers 25-54 and 18-49.

Other top-ranked broad-reach cablers, such as TNT and Fox News, are also claiming high-water marks. So are many niche cablers, including Discovery Health, History Channel and Versus.

History Channel, for example, published its own breathless year-end ratings statement, headlining it, “History celebrates its best year of all time!!” while touting 10% gains in viewers 25-54.

And that’s just a snippet of the hyperbole. In all, 37 ad-supported cable networks enjoyed their best-ever primetime audience deliveries during a year in which the broadcast networks have lost more than 2 million viewers 18-49, according to Turner Networks research guru Jack Wakshlag.

Wakshlag notes that basic cable has added 5 million viewers to its universe since the beginning of the 2007-08 TV season.

Most of these newfound cable viewers, he surmises, are refugees from the broadcast networks, which he says have lost nearly 2.6 million households this season.

Reasons for the quickening of the migration to cable in 2008 are myriad.

For one, with the bulk of scripted cable originals running in the summer, cable channels suffered far less from the writers strike. In fact, many cablers used broadcasters’ fallow winter and spring to introduce their wares to viewers fed up with repeats on the Big Four.

Such big events as the Olympics and the election factored in, too. While broadcaster NBC scored big, NBC U split much of its Summer Games airtime among cable networks including ratings leader USA.

Meanwhile, Fox News finished third in primetime cable behind USA and TNT with best-ever numbers burnished during the run-up to the presidential election.

More scripted originals lifted the profile — as well as the ratings — of many ad-supported cablers. A summer lineup that included light thrillers “Burn Notice” and “In Plain Sight” further burnished USA’s No. 1-in-cable-prime ranking, while No. 2-ranked TNT continued to get big summer numbers out of originals “The Closer” and “Saving Grace.”

Cable also added impressive new scripted hits like ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” and FX’s “Sons of Anarchy.”

Of course, where there’s a best ever, there’s often a worst ever.

A hardly verklempt Wakshlag playfully accentuates the Big Four’s dire situation in PowerPoint, noting that shedding 2.6 million households is the equivalent of losing the city of Philadelphia.

“We’re not just talking about a substantial number of people, but the biggest loss ever,” he says.

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