USA remains tops in total viewers

Bazinga indeed.

The off-net success of “The Big Bang Theory” propelled TBS to the top cable spot in the 18-49 and 18-34 demos for the first quarter of 2012, according to Nielsen data through March 18. The sitcom, which airs on CBS Thursday nights but now has a large cable following as well, was instrumental in the Atlanta cabler’s 34% increase in the 18-49 demo, where it averaged 1.2 million viewers.

As for overall viewership, USA Network remained No. 1 for the 23rd straight quarter. The NBC-Universal net averaged just over 3 million viewers in primetime, down 5% from a year ago.

Original programing in the first quarter for USA, which was narrowly first in 25-54 as well, included wrestling franchise “Raw,” “White Collar,” “Royal Pains” and “Psych.”

As for “The Big Bang Theory,” Turner chief research officer Jack Wakshlag said scheduling the smash sitcom multiple times a day — often in marathon sessions — seems to be a rising tide lifting all the TBS boats.

“If you think about TBS being a home for comedy — with shows like ‘Conan’ and ‘Family Guy’ — this was a place where ‘Big Bang’ can shine,” he said. “It has helped ‘Conan,’ our movies are doing better, and it’s a show that’s bringing viewers to this network.”

With “The Big Bang Theory” as a lead-in, “Conan” has seen ratings increases for the last four months and was recently given a two-year renewal.

For USA, which could see a ratings uptick in 2013 when “Modern Family” arrives via syndication, the stellar competition and the aging of some of its acquired series were reasons for the slight drop in overall viewers and 9% decrease in the 18-49 demo.

“It felt like, in the past, certain nights of the week there wasn’t much there, and now every night there were four or five shows that were doing decently,” said Ted Linhart, USA’s senior VP of research. “In other first quarters that wouldn’t happen.”

In addition to TBS, double-digit gainers in the 18-49 demo were History (1 million), Lifetime (553,000), AMC (545,000) and VH1 (440,000). History came within an eyelash of USA for first place in 25-54.

For total viewers, those rising by double digits besides TBS (2.1 million) were Food Network (1.3 million), Lifetime (1.2 million), Animal Planet (707,000) and VH1 (673,000).

Double-digit losers in total viewers included TNT (1.9 million), FX (1.4 million), MTV (1.1 million), Nick at Night (1 million) and Comedy Central (841,000).

Sports dominated the list of the first quarter’s most-watched programs. The biggest program was the Jan. 9 BCS college football championship game between LSU and Alabama, which drew 24.4 million and contributed to ESPN’s second-place finish in 18-49.

When live plus 7 data is included, the top nonsports program was the Jan. 6 series finale of Disney Channel skein “Wizards of Waverly Place,” which garnered 11.3 million. Several episodes of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” were also on the list, and its mammoth 9 million season finale from Sunday will move up once all the DVR data is included.

Among regular series, “The Walking Dead” was No. 1 in total viewers (9.3 million), more than 2 million above second place “Jersey Shore” (7.2 million). History owned the next two places — “Pawn Stars” (7 million) and “American Pickers” (6 million); the only other scripted series in the top 10 were USA’s “Royal Pains” (5.3 million) and “White Collar” (4.8 million).

Among new series in the first quarter, AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” was best in total viewers (3.6 million) and Discovery’s “Bering Sea Gold” was tops in 18-49 (1.8 million).

The news cablers saw either no growth or decreases across the board in total viewers. Fox News was flat from first quarter 2011 (1.8 million) while both MSNBC (814,000) and CNN were slightly down (762,000). In the 25-54 demo that’s most important to newsies, Fox News and MSNBC took 10% drops while CNN was off 4%.

The kid cablers were led by Disney Channel in both 2-11 and 6-11 demos in primetime. For the total programming day, Nickelodeon was tops but fell a hefty 24% from a year ago.

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