ABC Family rides ‘Express’ to a ratings record

Cable network scores best numbers in its history

ABC Family has broken out the party hats and balloons after scoring the best primetime ratings in its history last week.

Also for the first time ever, ABC Family came in No. 1 for the week (Dec. 4-10), beating such Nielsen cable powerhouses as USA, ESPN and TNT.

The main reason: two primetime runs of the hit Warner Bros. theatrical “The Polar Express,” the most-watched program in ABC Family’s history in its first run Saturday, when it racked up 5.06 million total viewers.

That number made “Express” the fourth highest-rated individual show of the week, behind ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” (the Panthers-Eagles game on Dec. 4, with 10.5 million), TNT’s two-hour original episode of “The Closer” (also Dec. 4, with 5.4 million) and WWE wrestling on USA (also Dec. 4, with 5.14 million).

The earlier ABC Family run of “Polar Express” on Friday wound up the eighth highest-rated show of the week, chalking up 4.03 million viewers.

Two other cable performers leapt out of the week’s TV ratings. Also on Friday, Cartoon Network’s “Re-Animated,” a mix of live-action and animation, delivered the best rating for an original movie among kids 6-11 in the network’s history.

And Comedy Central’s “Last Laugh ’06 Starring Lewis Black” on Sunday pulled 688,000 viewers 18-34, making it the highest-rated program for the night in cable in that demo.

On the down side, A&E’s original movie “Wedding Wars” Monday was left at the Nielsen altar, averaging only 483,000 viewers 25-54 and 470,000 viewers 18-49.

“Polar Express” was the first major theatrical scheduled by ABC Family that bypassed pay TV. HBO took a pass, exercising a clause in its theatrical output deal with Warner Bros. allowing the network to reject any animated movies.

Warner Bros. pitched “Express” to Showtime and Starz, but because the movie grossed a strapping $174 million at U.S. multiplexes, the pay TV price (tied to a percentage of domestic rentals) became too rich for HBO’s competitors. Hence, no pay TV window.

“Polar Express” engineered its U.S. TV premiere on ABC Dec. 1, a year before cabler would have gotten it if a feevee had stepped up. On ABC, “Express” harvested the best theatrical-movie rating on broadcast TV since the premiere of “Shrek” on NBC in February 2004.