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Hit Cable Series on the Rise as Broadcasters Suffer Record-Low Ratings

Cable is feeling pretty good about its prospects in this year’s upfront advertising sales derby

(From the pages of the March 26 issue of Variety.)

Amid a backdrop of record-low ratings for some broadcast shows, cable is feeling pretty good about its prospects in this year’s upfront advertising sales derby.

For the season, ad-supported cable as a group has opened up a bigger ratings advantage over the Big Four – and has beaten the broadcasters in the 18-49 demo on a regular basis in a handful of timeslots. But cablers still feel slighted by Madison Avenue because they rarely command ad rates that are commensurate with broadcasters.

That may not change this year, but the tipping point feels like it’s getting closer.

Cable has made headlines with monster numbers for its graphic zombie drama “The Walking Dead” — which is as big as anything on broadcast among young adults — and some hot reality shows like A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” (pictured above) and History’s “Pawn Stars.” At the same time, the Big Four — especially NBC — have endured media coverage that constantly refers to “record low” weekly averages.

“Cable has done a good job of hitting us where we ain’t (with male-skewing, cutting-edge shows),” says one network research exec. “But the breadth of the broadcasters’ top programs can’t be matched at this time.”

Sure, the February averages for a few scripted cable series (“Walking Dead,” ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars” and TBS’ “Cougar Town”) were higher than some of the month’s historically low broadcast duds (ABC’s “Zero Hour,” NBC’s “Guys With Kids” and “Smash,” CBS’ “The Job”). And all of these were bigger than NBC’s “Do No Harm,” whose 0.9 rating in adults 18-49 is the lowest ever for a Big Four premiere.

But if you take out the top two original scripted series for February (CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and “Walking Dead”), the next 48 scripted series all aired on broadcast networks, according to live plus same-day Nielsen averages.

Advertisers have been earmarking more money for cable networks in recent years during the upfronts, but the simple fact is that buying a cable schedule that matches the reach of a single broadcast net’s primetime offerings is a challenge. Cable’s hits are spread across a number of outlets, many of them with different corporate parents. Cobbling together a schedule of “Walking Dead,” “Pretty Little Liars” and “Cougar Town” might reach a lot of viewers between 18 and 49, but would require negotiating with AMC Networks, Disney and Time Warner’s Turner, with little hope of getting a big discount for buying heavy inventory across programs.

Cable does have its time in the spotlight — including nights like this coming Sunday when the finales of “Walking Dead” and History mini “The Bible” go head-to-head — but during times like sweep months, when everybody is airing originals, the broadcasters still dominate the adults 18-49 scripted rankers.

And cable is not without its own embarrassingly low ratings, including TNT’s David E. Kelley drama “Monday Mornings,” which bowed in February with a minuscule 0.3 in adults 18-49 and 1.34 million viewers — the lowest ever scripted premiere on a major cabler.

Much of cable’s ratings strength is generated by unscripted programming, for which advertisers typically don’t pay as much. In addition to “Duck Dynasty” and “Pawn Stars,” other shows that have beaten the broadcasters head-to-head in demos include MTV’s “Teen Mom” and Discovery’s “Gold Rush.”

In other words, for cablers, it’s more than just a matter of getting their Ducks in a row.

(Brian Steinberg contributed to this report.)

Cablers to Watch

As upfront season kicks into high gear, keep an eye on these players:

FX

After testing out critically praised but ratings-challenged shows such as “Damages” and “Terriers,” News Corp.’ flagship entertainment cabler has locked on to a schedule stocked with high-octane dramas like “Sons of Anarchy,” “Justified” and “American Horror Story” and edgy comedies “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Louie” and “Wilfred.”
RATINGS: Averaging 947,000 viewers in adults 18-49 for the season across all dayparts, up from 904,000 during the same period last season.
AD SALES: About $503.2 million in 2012, compared with about $506.1 million in 2011, according to SNL Kagan
PROGRAMMING FEES: 48¢ per subscriber in 2012, compared with 45¢ in 2011, according to SNL Kagan
HEAT SEEKER: FX is looking for ratings growth for buzzy new drama The Americans, which has been renewed.

* * *

TNT

Call this the start of the “Rizzoli & Isles” years, now that the Turner outlet no longer has “The Closer” in its arsenal.
RATINGS: Averaged 735,000 viewers in adults 18-49 for the season to date, compared with 718,000 in the year-ago period.
AD SALES: About $1.04 billion in 2012, compared with about $955.4 million in 2011.
PROGRAMMING FEES: $1.18 per subscriber in 2012, compared with $1.13 in 2011
HEAT SEEKER: With “Dallas” showing softness, TNT needs to beef up its drama bench. Frank Darabont period drama “L.A. Noir” could provide a lift.

* * *

USA

The crown jewel of NBCUniversal’s cablers, USA has experienced some ratings struggles in recent months. Heavily dependent on reruns of “NCIS” and “Law & Order: SVU,” USA has seen primetime ratings ebb (though it’s not alone) as those selections mature.
RATINGS: Averaging 1.03 million adults 18-49 across all dayparts, compared with 1.14 million last year.
AD SALES: About $1.043 billion in 2012, compared with roughly $1.042 billion in 2011.
PROGRAMMING FEES: 68¢ per subscriber in 2012, compared with 65¢ in 2011
HEAT SEEKER: USA is banking on “Modern Family” reruns this fall to draw new viewers. Will it have an original comedy companion to capitalize on its pricey acquisition?

– Brian Steinberg

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