Cable gains ground from broadcast networks

When it comes to momentum heading into the new year, the Eye has it — and it’s pretty much alone.

One year after the writers strike disrupted development and production cycles, the broadcast networks don’t seem to have recovered as a group. While CBS is doing just fine, the Big Four have ceded more ground to cable.

There’s certainly hope for the new year — ABC, CBS and Fox will all have more firstrun scripted programming than usual — but they’ll face an uphill battle in an industry where new successes are the exception.

Only one fall newbie — CBS drama “The Mentalist” — can be deemed an unqualified hit, while many returning dramas and nearly all veteran reality shows have taken a tumble.

The networks are down 9% year to year in the “most current” Nielsen averages that include seven-day DVR playback, but that’s actually an improvement vs. the 11% decline they were seeing in mid-fall. The nets were hit hard in October by keen interest in the presidential election, which sent viewers flocking to cable news nets in record numbers.

The networks must also reckon with the increased use of digital video recorders, allowing auds to watch programs on their own timetables. The percentage of Nielsen’s national sample including DVR homes has risen to 29%, up from 22% at this time a year ago.

Viewers are increasingly bypassing the nets’ uninspired Friday and Saturday offerings to catch up on midweek favorites. And they’re also opting to watch early-evening programs during the humdrum 10 o’clock hour, where the nets continue to offer up the standard crime, hospital and legal shows.

One reason NBC opted to strip Jay Leno in the weeknight 10 o’clock hour beginning in the fall is that the Peacock sees the show as more DVR-proof than other shows it can air in the time period.

But going forward, CBS clearly has the best story to tell.

The Eye has limited its year-to-year decline among adults 18-49 to 3%, while ABC, NBC and Fox are all off in the 10%-12% range.

CBS has opened up a 7% advantage on second-place ABC (3.2 vs. 3.0) and figures to give second-half dynamo Fox a good fight for the season crown when all is said and done. ABC could also be a factor, but only if it gets good production out of its batch of new shows set to bow this winter.

NBC, meanwhile, is likely headed for another fourth-place finish despite the upcoming Super Bowl. The net does not have much new firstrun scripted fare to call on and is instead loading up on reality shows.

CBS is also dominating in its core 25-54 demo, winning 12 of 14 weeks, and is well on its way to another victory in total viewers, having won 13 straight seshes to close out the year and currently drawing slightly more viewers than at this time a year ago.

The Eye claims nine of the season’s top 25 programs among adults 18-49, including “CSI” (No. 4) and top-rated comedy “Two and a Half Men” (No. 6). Reality vet “Survivor” also cracks the top 10 while dramas “Criminal Minds” and “CSI: Miami” are 11th and 12th, respectively.

CBS has also improved its fortunes on Tuesday with the tandem of “NCIS” and Simon Baker starrer “The Mentalist,” which has hit highs several times in its most recent outings. And the Eye is proving it’s not just crime dramas, as the net’s Monday comedy block is on the rise this season, with opening-hour tandem “The Big Bang Theory” and “How I Met Your Mother” both hitting series highs late in the year.

ABC can still count on vet hours “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives,” which rank first and second, respectively, for the season among adults 18-49. “Dancing With the Stars” remains potent as well despite taking a dip with its fall edition.

The Alphabet needs more moderate hits to sprinkle across its sked, though, and is hopeful that new 10 o’clock shows like the nonscripted “True Beauty” and dramas “Castle,” “Cupid” and “The Unusuals” can do some business. The return of “Lost” will help the net’s Nielsen cause and, ABC hopes, give a boost to its new skedmate “Life on Mars.”

NBC is losing its top show (“Sunday Night Football” at No. 3), but believes that “The Office” (No. 7) can pick up even more steam with its post-Super Bowl seg. Latter’s Thursday skedmate “30 Rock” has seen its numbers improve — it’s one of the few non-CBS returnees to grow this season.

The Peacock has seen declines for top dramas “Heroes” and “Law and Order: SVU,” and 15-year vet “ER” is calling it quits in March. The net is pinning much of its midseason hopes on drama “Kings,” which will inherit “ER’s” long-held Thursday timeslot.

Fox is in its customary also-ran position heading into January, but that’s when it typically takes over thanks to “American Idol.” Also back is “24,” which hasn’t aired as a series since May 2007.

The net hasn’t had a whole lot to shout about this season, although “Fringe” has emerged as the season’s top-rated new program in 18-49 (No. 15), airing Tuesdays behind “House” (No. 5). It will get a chance to grow its aud as it begins playing behind “Idol” later this month.

Also getting an “Idol” boost will be new drama “Lie to Me” on Wednesdays, while Fridays in February will see the debut of Joss Whedon drama “Dollhouse.”

At the smaller networks, CW is down year to year (1.0/3 vs. 1.2/3) while MyNetwork is up (0.6/2 vs. 0.4/1). The latter, propelled by former CW skein “WWE Friday Night Smackdown” as well as a solid batch of specials and movies, topped CW for the month of December.

CW has been buoyed by good numbers for its Monday combo of “Gossip Girl” and “One Tree Hill,” both up nicely year to year. Tuesday newcomer “90210″ has also fared pretty well, performing at a consistently satisfactory level following its impressive premiere.

The fourth quarter was a good one for numerous cablers, with 13 of the top 20 networks posting 18-49 gains vs. a year ago. ESPN, driven by “Monday Night Football,” and USA, powered by “WWE Raw,” tied for the demo lead, with laffer-led TBS close behind.

MTV was a noticeable laggard, slipping 21% vs. its showing of a year ago to rank 19th. Fellow Viacom net VH1 was the only other top-30 cabler to fall off (down 13%).

Making significant leaps in 2008 were the news nets CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, each of which benefited from the run-up to the presidential election.

For the fourth quarter, CNN ranked 14th among cablers in adults 18-49, while Fox News was 17th and MSNBC came in at No. 20 — each more than doubling its year-ago delivery. Fox News cracked the top 10 among adults 25-54 (tops among the newsies) and ranked third among all cablers in total viewers.

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