Top 35 cable networks are up 7% in viewers

The top 35 ad-supported cable networks are up 7% in total viewers this season, according to a report released Wednesday by Turner Networks’ research department.

The report, which is based on Nielsen Media Research data, shows Fox News, MSNBC, ESPN, Cartoon Network and Food Network among the cablers posting large first-quarter audience gains in prime time.

Fox News has averaged 1.7 million households in the time period so far this quarter, a 22% uptick over the first quarter of 2008, while rival MSNBC is averaging 741,000 households, an 18% gain.

Meanwhile, driven by toon hit “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” Turner’s Cartoon Network has averaged 1.1 million households, a 17% year-to-year increase. Food Network (averaging 762,000 households for a 16% uptick) and ESPN (1.2 million households, up 15%) are also experiencing big gains, according to the report.

Cablers posting significant audience attrition in the quarter include MTV and Turner’s TruTV, which have both experienced 16% drop-offs in average primetime households. Spike (-13%) and Lifetime (-12%) are also down.

Under the oversight of Turner research chief Jack Wakshlag, the cable conglom’s research tomes rarely pass up an opportunity to deliver a depressing picture of broadcast network performance, and this latest report was no exception. It projects that the webs will lose an additional 8-10½% audience share next season, with natural audience erosion, the reduced audience sizes of NBC’s Jay Leno-led 10 o’clock talker and the effects of the digital transition all taking their toll.

Buried in the report, however, was some happy news for broadcasters. Despite overall audience erosion of 5% this year, the networks posted a 1% year-to-year gain in February and are so far up 2% in March.

Regarding the upcoming switch from analog to digital television, the report says that 4% of TV homes remain completely unready for the change.

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