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USA remains top cabler for fifth year in a row

History shows significant improvement in all demos

Zombies, Kardashians and the Situation provided tough competition, but a balanced year-round lineup kept USA Network atop the cable ratings leaderboard in 2010.

Preliminary primetime numbers (through Dec. 12) show another strong year for cable. Sports and politics continued to be big draws, and shows that touched the cultural zeitgiest — whether it was “Jersey Shore” or “The Walking Dead” — got plenty of support from fans and their social-media soapboxes.

Newcomers like TNT’s “Rizzoli and Isles” impressed, but for the fifth consecutive year, the USA Network was best in the 18-49 and 25-54 demos, as well as total viewers. Helping USA remain tops were returning series “Royal Pains” (7.3 million total viewers, 3.09 million in 18-49), “Burn Notice” (6.59 total viewers, 2.99 in 18-49) and “White Collar” (5.37 total viewers, 2.29 in 18-49). Freshman show “Covert Affairs” also had a strong season, with 7.05 million viewers and 2.96 million in 18-49. “WWE Raw” continued to draw wrestling fans, who have proven to have an insatiable appetite for the genre.

Among adults under 50, USA averaged a leading 1.23 million viewers — although that marked an 11% decline from 2009. Net also fell double digits in the 18-34 and 25-54 demos. The drop in overall viewers wasn’t as steep — just 4%.

Bonnie Hammer, who runs USA Network and Syfy and will add E! to her plate once the NBC Universal-Comcast merger is complete, told Daily Variety she was more than satisfied with the results.

“We maintained solid ratings and brought in younger eyeballs,” said Hammer, who added that the goal of USA has been to skew younger, even tapping into the 18-34 demo. “We’re happy with the outcome.”

She added that the decrease in the demos was not unexpected, especially considering 2009 offnet acquisitions “House” and “NCIS” had performed above expectations and therefore the year-to-year comparisons were likely to go down. The net also continued to debut programs away from Friday night, which had been a comfortable and noncompetitive spot for USA.

As for being best five years in a row and the expectations that come with that, Hammer said, “It’s a good healthy pressure. We don’t want to lose No. 1 and it’s not something we’re going to give up too easily.”

Of the top 10 cablers in the 18-49 demo, only four nets actually saw increases vs. a year ago.

The biggest uptick for any cabler was generated by History, which saw a 34% increase in 18-49 thanks to shows such as “Pawn Stars,” “Swamp People” and “American Pickers.” Net moved from 13th in the demo in 2009 to fifth in 2010. History also grew 35% in total viewers and the 25-54 demo, while moving up a very healthy 46% in the 18-34 demo.

“What’s so particularly sweet is the growth in every demo,” History topper Nancy Dubuc told Daily Variety. “For us, this isn’t about just 2010 but a journey that began in 2007 when we wanted to be a series appointment viewing destination. It’s about stability across the board with a variety of programs.”

Net, which focuses on reality fare, will increase its commitment to scripted programming next year with a miniseries about the Kennedy family set to debut in the first quarter.

Dubuc said History, which revamped itself three years ago by embracing reality programs that drew the attention of males who hadn’t tuned in before, is “forging new genres. I look around the dial and see a minimum of 11 copycat shows in our footsteps and I continue to be amazed at the announcement of more of them.”

The two most watched original cable series this year were both from TNT: “Rizzoli & Isles” and “The Closer.” “Rizzoli,” starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander, averaged 8.77 million viewers, and Kyra Sedgwick’s veteran cop drama “The Closer” averaged 8.32 million in its sixth season.

The Turner cabler, which was No. 4 in total viewers and 18-49 (and No. 3 in adults 25-54), is helped by NBA playoff games during the spring, which bring out many viewers who may not tune in to TNT for non-sports programming.

Also strong was Turner sister station TBS, helped considerably by the arrival of Conan O’Brien’s latenight talkshow “Conan.” In primetime, TBS was tops in the 18-34 demo with the help of hits such as “Are We There Yet?” and the two Tyler Perry skeins “Meet the Browns” and “House of Payne.”

In year-to-year comparisons however, TNT was down 5% in 18-49 and 18-34 and 6% off in 25-54. TBS fell slightly in all three categories as well.

MTV should send a big thank-you card to Snooki and her “Jersey Shore” castmates. The wildly popular series helped the net rebound from several tough years. Cabler rose 20% in the 18-49 demo and an even better 23% with the 18-34 crowd. “Teen Mom” also contributed to the net’s uptick.

After “The Walking Dead,” “Jersey Shore” was the No. 2 series in the 18-49 demo with 4.15 viewers. In total viewers, the series averaged 5.99 million viewers and was the most-watched series not from USA, TNT or AMC.

Other networks in the 18-49 top 10 were ESPN, which was up 4% from 2009; A&E, flat from 2009; FX, down 10%; Discovery, also flat; and ABC Family, which saw 5% growth.

Cablers suffering through a tough year with double-digit declines in the demo included Syfy, which fell 11%, Nat Geo (12%) Nick at Nite (17%), Spike (18%), Hallmark Channel (24%) and VH1 (31%).

On the double-digit upside were E!, better by 15%; TV Land, 13%; Oxygen, 13%; and Animal Planet, 10%. Investigation Discovery grew a healthy 68%.

For total viewers, some of the biggest winners were MTV, TV Land, E! and Oxygen. Similar to the 18-49 demo, falling significantly were Spike, Hallmark and VH1.

Among the kid-friendly nets, Disney Channel was best in primetime while Nickelodeon took the total-day crown.

In the cable news business, Fox News was, not surprisingly, far superior to CNN and MSNBC, but the network did drop 7% in overall viewers and in the 25-54 demo compared 2009. The drop by CNN was far worse, however. Net fell 35% in overall viewers and 25-54. MSNBC’s losses were much less: 6% in total viewers and 12% in 25-54.

Top program for Fox News was “The O’Reilly Factor,” which drew 3.19 million viewers. In fact, Fox News had the top 12 cable news programs in overall viewers. Top non-Fox program is MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” which earns 1.03 million viewers per night.

ESPN delivered the 10 biggest cable programs of the year, all of them being Monday night NFL games. As NBC can attest, football is king and the Oct. 25 ESPN Giants-Cowboys game drew a year-high 17.98 million viewers. Of the top 15 slots for most-watched program, 13 were NFL games. A January episode of ‘iCarly” and the September MTV Video Music Awards were the only non-football telecasts.

That same kudocast was the top 18-34 program of the year (5.81 million) while the Sept. 27 Packers-Bears game (9.44 million) took home the 18-49 crown.

One interest of note: As viewership habits continue to unfold, the acceleration of auds using DVRs increases. From November 2009 to last month, DVR usage increased from 37% to 40%. In 2006, only 11% of households used a DVR.

Also, the average person watches 34 hours of television a week, including DVR usage. Despite competition from the Internet and a handful of digital devices, that number is up from just over 32 hours four years ago.

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