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April fills cablers with ratings thrills

Pay TV beats b'casters in primetime overall

Going into the NCTA huddle May 5-8 in New Orleans, cable networks are flush with the victory of April’s ratings numbers.

For the first time in a non-summer month, ad-supported cable networks, as a category, beat the six broadcast networks in primetime — and by a sizable margin.

Even more significant than the huge gains for cable as a whole was the dazzling Nielsen performance by so many individual cable networks.

“It’s cable series like ‘The Osbournes’ that are generating all of the fresh programming buzz,” says Bob Flood, senior VP and director of national TV for Optimedia.

Three of the four highest-rated programs in all of basic cable for April were half-hour episodes of MTV’s “The Osbournes.” (The fourth was an edition of TNN’s perennial Monday hit series “WWF Raw.”)

The cultural phenomenon of “Osbournes” helped to thrust MTV into a rare eighth place over all among cable networks for the month, 33% above its rating a year ago April.

MTV was one of 11 of the top-15-rated cable networks that shot up by double digits in April, another stunning turnaround that had these networks pinching themselves. Until last month’s cable resurgence, the Nielsen falloffs of the mature networks had buttressed the theory, propounded most forcefully by the broadcasters, that cable’s overall audience gains are coming mainly from the proliferation of new networks, which are cannibalizing the established ones.

But a survey by the Cabletelevision Advertising bureau indicates that, taken together, the 16 oldest ad-supported cable networks (the ones that started purchasing Nielsen data before 1990) delivered an average of 600,000 more primetime homes in the first quarter of 2002 compared to the same period last year.

These include Lifetime, TNT, USA, Nickelodeon, Discovery, ESPN and A&E.

Similarly, the 27 cable networks that joined the original 16 between 1990 and 2000 added — collectively — 1.5 million more primetime homes in the first quarter than they did a year ago. These include Fox News Channel, Comedy Central, CNBC, Learning Channel, Cartoon Network, Sci Fi Channel and History Channel.

The three networks that have started to collect Nielsen data since 2000 — Toon Disney, Speed Channel and Lifetime Movie Network — are also up quarter to quarter, by 130,000 average homes.

But in the key 18- to 49-year-old demo, Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior VP and director of broadcast research for Initiative Media, says that she’s seen “no change year to year. Cable growth has come primarily from new networks, and from increased coverage” of the U.S. by existing networks.

Koerner adds that in the past year nine more channels have joined the selective company of cable networks that clear 70% or more of the country, swelling the total figure from 19 to 28 networks.

One of the reasons cable might have jumped so dramatically in April, she says, is that “there’s not one blockbuster, breakout hit among all of the new midseason series” in broadcast primetime. On the other hand, “The Osbournes” and FX’s “The Shield” are generating lots of heat among viewers.

But broadcasters are fighting back, says Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research for Horizon Media. He points to broadcasters’ elaborate plans to add a record number of series to their primetime skeds this summer. But in the long run, he says, all these scheduling ploys are little more than an extravagant game because AOL Time Warner, the Walt Disney Co., Viacom and News Corp. own both broadcast and cable networks.

“If Disney’s ABC loses viewers to the Disney Channel or ABC Family,” he says, “the ABC network may not be too happy but the corporate parent will be all right.”

As Adgate puts it, “Vertical integration has changed the model. It’s not broadcast vs. cable any more, its media conglomerate vs. media conglomerate.”