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Cable spins a ratings fable

Auds don't seem to matter higher on the dial

Scan recent headlines and you’ll see all kinds of ratings milestones for basic cable networks.

E!, Style and ABC Family all recently delivered their most-watched quarters ever. Ditto for Oxygen, Nickelodeon and newbie boys net Disney XD. MTV — the “No. 1 cable network among 12-34 year olds” — was up 11% year to year. BET closed the quarter “with a bang,” per its PR team, and best first-quarter results in four years.

You have to work harder to find any negative news. Shockingly, few networks appear motivated to spin out releases when they’ve had a crappy quarter, except maybe CNN. And for the most part, a cabler’s weak performance — unlike that of, say, NBC — can slip by under the radar, without eliciting much notice.

There’s no denying the ratings gap between major broadcasters and cable has narrowed — an inevitable by-product of cable’s aggressive expansion into original programming and the deflating effects of audience fragmentation on the Big Four.

Yet for all the ink spilled on behalf of classy cable dramas — and less classy but high-profile reality shows, like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” or “Jersey Shore” — a decided double standard remains when it comes to the ratings scrutiny broadcasters receive versus cable.

Just this week, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times both wrote glowingly about the onslaught of cable dramas. As someone who carves out several hours every week to absorb (or wallow in) the dour doings on “Damages” and “Breaking Bad,” “Caprica” and “Southland,” there’s little pleasure in noting that these programs deliver an audience that, on a major network, would get them canceled between the second and third act breaks.

Despite well-deserved acclaim and overflowing trophy cases, “Mad Men” and “Damages” have been unable to crack 2 million viewers for their primary telecasts. While it would be facile to compare such followings to mega-hits “American Idol” or “Dancing With the Stars,” it’s fair to note even a cable success such as FX’s modern-day western “Justified” lassoed a third as many people last week as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” or CBS’ “NCIS” rerun.

One reason for cable’s free ride stems from journalists’ lack of perspective and, quite frankly, limited math skills — making it easier to snooker them with claims of “soaring” ratings off conveniently low bases.

Style, for example, saw its first-quarter primetime ratings grow 24% compared to 2009, which sounds less impressive when considering the network’s average of a 172,000 viewers — meaning the raw audience gain wouldn’t fill the arena hosting Monday’s NCAA championship game. BET’s “bang” amounted to slightly more than 500,000 viewers.

In private moments, cable execs acknowledge one of the blessings of running a niche network is a single hit’s ability to move the dial in a positive direction. A programmer need only improve by a couple of tenths — remember, in PR-speak going from a 0.8 to a 1 rating is a “25% surge” — to look like a hero.

Cable also receives a pass, in part, because there are simply too many channels to regularly monitor all their ups and downs. As a consequence, journalists tend to note good news sent our way but seldom have the time or inclination to ferret out the bad. A&E, for example, just introduced two reality shows, “Fugitive Chronicles” and “Runaway Squad,” but unlike the recent trio NBC launched, almost nobody knows (or cares) how they did.

The potential problem for cable networks going forward is that each breakthrough raises the bar a little bit higher. When ESPN can attract nearly 22 million viewers for a regular-season football game (as Minnesota-Green Bay did last October) or Disney Channel records 17 million for its “High School Musical” sequel, that’s proof — to quote a popular phrase among broadcast honchos — that their pipes work, too.

This isn’t to suggest “Mad Men” should be expected to draw “Grey’s Anatomy”-type numbers, any more than “The Hurt Locker” ought to rival “Avatar’s” box office bounty.

Nevertheless, cable appears to be getting away with a rather self-serving formula for evaluating success — somewhere between “It’s a hit when we say so” and “Ratings? We don’t need no stinkin’ ratings.”

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