Cable TV had a lot to brag about in 2006, but one statistic tells the story — 27 entertainment networks delivered primetime gains of 10% or more in key demos, while only seven fell off by double digits.
But while entertainment networks were basking in Nielsen glory amid a record number of original series and movies, a hotly contested midterm election wasn’t enough to stem steep declines in cable news.
And the cable-news net with the biggest audience came up the biggest loser: Fox News. The Rupert Murdoch-owned newsie dropped 14% of its total audience in 2006, and its primetime losses were even steeper.
Here’s a look at some cable winners in 2006:
? USA, which not only finished first in total viewers and in the three key adult categories (18-34, 18-49 and 25-54), but was up by double digits across the board.
The network had three hit original series in rookie “Psych” and returnees “Monk” and “The 4400,” and Monday wrestling skein “WWE Smackdown” again pinned down big numbers on a weekly basis.
? Nickelodeon’s premiere of “SpongeBob: the Movie,” which collected 7.5 million viewers to stand as the year’s most-watched theatrical, edging out USA’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” (7.4 million).
Also on the movie front, Disney Channel soared with two originals, “The Cheetah Girls 2” and “High School Musical,” which each drew more than 4 million kids 2-11. Net shot up by double-digit percentages year to year.
And while it wasn’t a big demo draw, AMC’s telepic “Broken Trail,” with Robert Duvall, drew a big 10 million viewers on both nights it aired in June.
? TNT was off by about 5% year-to-year in key categories but continued strong with another season of “The Closer,” which has become the highest-rated series in the history of ad-supported cable. A June episode of “Closer” peaked at 8.5 million viewers.
? And then there’s FX, which continues to hit a bull’s-eye with the 18-49 aud. Its shows don’t draw as large an overall audience as others, but “Nip/Tuck,” “Rescue Me” and “The Shield” continue to be popular draws with the young adults advertisers crave.
“Nip/Tuck” finished its fourth season up slightly year to year, and stood as cable’s No. 1 series in adults 18-49.
? ESPN, which fully justified the record $1.1 billion a year it ponied up for “NFL Monday Night Football.” The 13 highest-rated individual cable programs in 2006 were ESPN’s Monday night football games, as the “MNF” package moved over to cable after 36 years on ABC.
Three other networks that average 1 million viewers in primetime put up a banner year in 2006. In order of their overall finish, the three are: Hallmark Channel (up 26%), Discovery Channel (up 14%) and HGTV (up 18%).
On the down side, five networks with more than 1 million primetime viewers suffered double-digit losses: Lifetime (down 13%), Cartoon (down 10%), Nick at Nite (down 21%), Fox News (down 20%) and Spike (down 19%).
Among the all-news networks, Fox had some huge ratings last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and no one pulled in more viewers from the NatalieHolloway disappearance, but growth came to a grinding halt in 2006. That in turn raised the question of whether the Fox phenomenon has run its course — or if the network is simply stalled in a bum news cycle.
But despite rough ratings comparisons, 2006 was far from a lost year for Fox, which managed to stay among the top-10 cable nets in total viewers, and won huge fee increases from both Cablevision and a consortium of smaller operators.
The new deals caused some analysts to revise forecasts for News Corp., auguring well for coming talks with Comcast and Time Warner Cable.
Even with declines, Fox News had by far the biggest cable-news audience in 2006, and its coverage of President Bush’s State of the Union in January was the highest-rated hour in cable news for the year, amassing 6.47 million viewers.
MSNBC was the only cable-news channel to gain audience and market share in 2006, in part because it ushered in NBC News personalities like Tim Russert and Andrea Mitchell, who now do significant time in the morning, displacing MSNBC’s dayside anchors.
Then there’s Keith Olbermann, who loves to pick fights with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and became the net’s first breakout personality, helping MSNBC to gain 5% more primetime viewers than last year.
Fox wasn’t the only one hurt by ratings declines. CNN took nearly as big a hit, losing 12% in total viewers and 19% in the 25-54 demo. It did come up with a breakout personality, but not the one it intended.
The net poured millions into promoting Anderson Cooper, but Lou Dobbs zipped into the spotlight by hammering on about immigration and the so-called “war on the middle class.”