Olympics, net hits turn tables on cable

Five channels plunged by double digits in primetime

The Olympics ratings may have proved a disappointment to NBC in primetime, but the Games were cable’s worst nightmare: Only two of the 10 top-rated cable networks — USA and FX — harvested more viewers in February than a year ago.

One network, TBS, was flat year-to-year, but five of the seven other channels plunged by double digits in primetime during February: Nick at Nite (down 19%), Cartoon (down 20%), Lifetime (down 10%), ESPN (down 10%) and Spike (down 16%). (The others, TNT and Fox News, both were off by 5%.)

Tim Brooks, executive VP of research for Lifetime, said it was not only the Olympics on NBC that put the kibosh on cable’s usual monthly Nielsen gains, “but the fact that Fox and ABC went head-to-head with the Winter Games” by running original episodes of hits like “American Idol,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Dancing with the Stars.”

Overall, the seven broadcast networks climbed from a combined 30.6 rating in February 2005 to a 32.1 rating last month, a rare monthly increase in an eroding Nielsen environment for broadcast TV, according to Brooks. And cable, which invariably rises every month in the Nielsens, dropped off in February from a 31.0 rating to a 30.5.

The biggest surprise among individual cable shows is that the highest-rated program during February, a “SpongeBob SquarePants” half-hour special, chalked up 1.52 million more total viewers than TNT’s “NBA All-Star Game” in second place. Fox News’ coverage of President Bush’s State of the Union address finished third, about 500,000 viewers behind the game.