Originals behind spike in viewership

Cable ratings up in April

NEW YORK — Ad-supported cable networks romped to the best April ratings in their collective history, a banner month highlighted by the double-digit primetime increases for 11 of the top-15-rated cable webs and the emergence of original programming successes like “The Osbournes.”

“Basic cable has got the heat, and it’s lifting the viewership of almost every cable network on the air,” said Tim Brooks, senior VP of research for Lifetime. That’s a marked contrast to the numbers in recent years.Starting with the big picture, Brooks said that for the first time in a non-summer month, cable networks as a category beat the six broadcast networks in primetime ratings. Cable averaged a 29.2 primetime rating for April compared to a 26.5 for the six broadcast networks. Those numbers were a virtual reversal of a year ago April, when the six broadcast networks averaged a 28.7 primetime rating and cable averaged a 25.5.

Jon Marks, senior VP of research for Turner Entertainment, said one of the reasons for cable’s ascendancy is that “cable network successes are spread across many networks over a number of nights.”

MTV’s “The Osbournes” has become a cultural event on Tuesday night, three episodes of which finished among the four highest-rated individual programs of the month. (The April 1 Monday-night edition of “WWF Raw” on TNN finished second for the month.)

Other examples include such shows as FX’s “The Shield,” Lifetime’s successful Sunday-night series lineup (“The Division,” “Strong Medicine” and “Any Day Now”), the Learning Channel’s “Changing Spaces,” high-profile theatrical movies on TNT, TBS and USA, and a resurgence of MTV’s long-running “Real World” series.

Broadcast execs have generally rebutted the cable industry’s chest-thumping of rising cable ratings in recent years by dismissing the gains as coming as a result of the sheer number of cable networks. This held some validity when, indeed, most of the top-rated cablers were losing audience.

April numbers indicated that cable can gain through solid programming as well.

However, comparisons between cablers and broadcast webs for April may be somewhat skewed by the fact that broadcasters aired a few more repeats than usual last month. Webs — wanting to lure back viewer after NBC’s February Olympics coverage — burned off more original segs in March this year than usual.

What’s more, the Big Six still generate far higher ratings for most of their series vs. the typical cable series.

As for individual cablers, Lifetime finished first in households for the month with a 2.2 primetime rating, up 16% from a year ago. The rest of the top 15 are: Nickelodeon (a 1.9 rating, up 19%), TBS (1.7, up 13%), TNT (1.7, up 13%), USA (1.7, flat), Cartoon Network (1.6, down 6%) and Fox News Channel (1.1, up 71%).

Also: MTV (1.2, up 33%), A&E (1.1, down 8%), Discovery (1.1, down 8%), Learning Channel (1.0, up 11%), TV Land (1.0, up 43%), CNN (0.9, up 50%), ABC Family (0.9, up 29%) and FX (0.9, up 13%).

VH1 continues to bleed viewers, averaging just a 0.3 in primetime for the month — down a whopping 25% vs. a year ago. Overall, music cabler ranks 42nd out of 47 basic cable nets.

In adults 18 to 49, 13 of the top-15-rated networks were up in primetime from the previous April, with USA edging out TNT to finish first, followed by Lifetime, TBS and MTV.

Lifetime came out on top among adults 25 to 54, followed by USA, TNT and TBS.

In total day, the big growth story centered on Fox News and CNN. Turmoil in the Middle East propelled Fox News to a 0.7 total-day rating, up 133% from April 2001, and CNN to a 0.6 rating, up 100%.

By contrast, despite the Mideast flareup, MSNBC averaged a 0.4, flat vs. a year ago.