The top basic cablers prospered by sticking to the script in 2009, riding original drama and comedy skeins to new ratings heights.
In an increasingly fragmented media landscape, cablers that boosted the volume of scripted originals generally reaped ratings gains and solidified their brands, an examination of the numbers for the calendar year reveals.
USA Network and FX are the poster children for the original series boom. USA had more total viewers than any other net in cable history, with 3.29 million tuning in during primetime. NBC Universal’s flagship cabler was also No. 1 among basic cablers in the adults 18-49 demo (up 29% from last year) and saw immediate traction for new skeins “Royal Pains” and “White Collar.” Returning series “Burn Notice” was second in total viewers (7.19 million) to TNT’s “The Closer” (7.75 million) and tops in 18-49 (3.33 million), according to preliminary 2009 averages (final numbers will be released today).
At FX, motorcycle club drama “Sons of Anarchy” was No. 2 in 18-49 among shows on all basic cablers, drawing 3.16 million viewers in the demo in its sophomore season. Overall, the net — which finally launched a successful comedy in “The League” to follow “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” — was up 10% in the demo from 2008.
USA, FX and other cablers sought to take advantage of the decline in scripted series on the Big Four broadcast nets by filling the void. USA, which previously aired its originals on Fridays, successfully cashed in by spreading its shows around the week.
TNT was essentially flat for the year in total viewers and in the demo. While “The Closer” continues its strong pace, the cabler’s new entries have been modest performers so far. Cop drama “Dark Blue” and “Hawthorne,” a medical sudser starring Jada Pinkett Smith, earned second-season renewals. The ensembler “Men of a Certain Age,” which bowed this month, has performed respectably and drew generally high marks from crix. The biggest surprise of the year for TNT was the cancellation of Holly Hunter starrer “Saving Grace” — not by TNT but by producer Fox Television Studios. Fox pulled the plug because “Grace” wasn’t doing much biz internationally or on DVD.
The “Saving Grace” situation reflects the tricky balance the biz faces as more and more outlets produce originals.
FX topper John Landgraf believes that while cable’s growth offers more options for viewers, too many channels can ultimately hurt the business.
Fragmentation is a bad thing,” Landgraf told Daily Variety. “We would be better with fewer channels. Ultimately, what you want is a nice number of strong channels and not an infinite number of weak channels. You don’t want 1,000 channels that produce cheap programming.”
Although FX enjoyed ratings gains this year, Landgraf says that in the long run, cablers, like broadcasters, have to adjust to the erosion of the traditional advertising model as more viewers watch programming on DVRs and online sources.
The industry has to find a solution to sustain ad revenues and that will sustain scripted series,” Landgraf said. “If we’re unable to do that, original series will have to be cut back. We’re at a tipping point.”
Among the cablers fueled by nonscripted originals, Food Network sizzled this year with 26% growth in total viewers and adults 18-49. And TLC, thanks to the “Jon and Kate Plus 8” phenomenon and a slate of cuisine-oriented programming, grew 18% in total viewers and 13% in the 18-49 demo. Top three reality programs in the demo were Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch,” Lifetime’s “Project Runway” and Bravo’s “Top Chef.”
Aside from Food and TLC, other top-40 nets up by double-digit percentages in adults 18-49 were (in order of ranking) BET, TruTV, Travel Channel, Animal Planet, Lifetime Movie Network, National Geographic Channel, Versus and SoapNet.
It was also a big year for ESPN, which rode record numbers for “Monday Night Football” to a No. 2 finish behind USA in 18-49. Disney Channel came the closest to USA in total viewers, with 6% growth to 2.53 million viewers in primetime.
Among the cable news nets, Fox News — bolstered by a strong weeknight lineup of opinionated talkers “Glenn Beck” and “The O’Reilly Factor” — moved into the top five in total viewers behind USA, Disney Channel, ESPN and TNT.
In adults 25-54, Fox News was impressively up in primetime by about 10% vs. its election-boosted average of 2008. MSNBC dropped by 20% and CNN by about 40%. Though CNN still drew more overall viewers in primetime, it was surpassed in adults 25-54 for the first time by MSNBC.
Pay cablers also had a strong year with new series.
Showtime, which upped its subscriber base to 17.5 million, scored record ratings for the fourth season of “Dexter” and renewed first-year dramedies “Nurse Jackie” and “United States of Tara.”
At HBO, the second season of “True Blood” became the most-watched series in the channel’s history behind “The Sopranos” — 12.7 million viewers per episode, including repeat and video-on-demand plays — while “Hung” was the net’s top freshman skein.
Looking ahead, pay competitor Starz seems poised to make a serious play in original programming. Beyond launching “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” in January, the cabler has hired former HBO boss Chris Albrecht to guide the net in filling its pipeline with new scripted shows.
Of course, all cablers couldn’t be winners, and several nets saw a decrease from year to year. CNN’s declines were well documented (although sister net HLN had its best year ever), and Lifetime, despite the addition of “Project Runway” from Bravo, took a 20% hit in total viewers and 17% in the demo.
The MTV family also had a rough go. Comedy Central was down 10% in total viewers and 12% in the demo, while mothership MTV — struggling to find a new reality show to replace a fading “The Hills” — was off 10% in overall viewers and 9% in the demo.
For cablers programming to the younger set, Nickelodeon continues to lead Disney in the total-day yardstick in viewers and key kid demos.