ESPN, USA lead overall; AMC, Food, TBS on rise

Even though cable is traditionally measured on a quarterly or calendar-year basis, the end of the broadcast season offers a good gauge of a cabler’s popularity during the most-watched months of the year — and to see how they stack up to the big boys.

CBS and Fox claimed ratings victories in various Nielsen categories for the 2011-12 season that ended on May 23. The Eye joined NBC in posting year-to-year gains, while ABC was roughly flat and Fox was down a bit.

During the same period, cable giants ESPN, USA, Disney Channel and TNT all lost ground vs. the previous season, while other top-20 nets including AMC, Discovery and Food posted healthy upswings.

Most-watched broadcaster CBS, which averaged 11.75 million viewers during the season, delivered an audience that was nearly four times the size of top cabler USA (3.03 million). And in adults 18-49, the audience for overall leader Fox (4.1 million in that age group) was more than three times that of No. 1 cable network ESPN (1.2 million).

USA remained on top in total cable viewers despite a 2% dip, and ranked third in adults 18-49 (1.13 million), down 6%. It also edged past ESPN in adults 25-54, a reversal of last year.

ESPN remained No. 1 in adults 18-49 (1.18 million), but its 13% decline combined with a 16% rise by TBS left the Turner net a very close second (1.16 million), up from fourth last season. TBS has been boosted by robust repeat ratings for “The Big Bang Theory.”

Following ESPN, TBS and USA in adults 18-49 rankings, History ranked fourth (883,000, up 1%) and FX came in fifth (870,000, up 8%). In total viewers, USA was followed by Disney (2.49 million, down 5%), ESPN (2.47 million, down 11%), TBS (2.13 million, up 16%) and History (2.01 million, up 6%) — with the latter’s huge tune-in for miniseries “Hatfields and McCoys” (13 million viewers-plus each night) coming in the week after the broadcast season ended.

Joining TBS in double-digit 18-49 gains were AMC, Discovery, Food and ID. AMC moved from 21st to 17th in the rankings thanks to hot zombie series “The Walking Dead” — cable’s No. 1 series of all time among adults 18-49.

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