Cable's Late Bloomers
ESPN, Sci Fi prove strong ratings finishers
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/15/2002 7:00:00 PM
Oh, to create a hit show. Conventional wisdom says cable networks that can nurture one or two hits can build on that base to make themselves Nielsen contenders.
|Cable nets making gains or losing ground in 2002|
|Notable Winners||HH Rating||Chng.*|
*2002 vs. 2001
Source: Turner Broadcasting, Nielsen Media Research
|Selected Slips||HH Rating||Chng.*|
That's what will make Lifetime and TNT the top-rated cable networks again this season, it's safe to say with three weeks left in 2002.
But it's also what could make 2003 a big year for Sci Fi, which seems poised to take the leap from cable also-ran to cable darling, based on the success of its bold 10-part Steven Spielberg UFO thriller, Taken, which debuted Dec. 2.
Likewise, for down-on-its-luck ESPN, the end of '02 and the return of the football season did a lot to take the sting out the earlier part of the year.
After six episodes, Taken, a $35 million project, averaged at least a 4.0 rating. That helped boost Sci Fi's prime time rating to a 2.8 in the premiere week. Usually, the network could depend on an 0.9, which is what it averaged this year.
"The most important thing is not Taken but what happens after Taken," said Lifetime's head of research Tim Brooks last week. "Can they keep some of that audience?"
Similarly, for ESPN, the football season couldn't have kicked off any sooner. After starting the year with a modest 1.0 average in first and second quarters, ESPN spiked to a 1.85 average for the second half, when NFL telecasts dominated cable ratings.
Of the year's top-15 rated programs so far this year, 13 have been pro-football games. ESPN will finish the year with a 1.4 prime time average, up about 8% from last year.
Cable is expected to eclipse the seven broadcast networks in total audience share for the year, 48% to 45%, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Lifetime, with a 2.1 prime time average, claimed the ratings crown for the second straight year. It's only the fourth cable net to accomplish that feat (past two-time winners include TNT, TBS Superstation and USA).
"To win a second year in a row proves the first was no fluke," Brooks said. Lifetime's Sunday-night dramas and tear-jerking movies consistently fueled its prime time success.
TNT was the closest competitor, its 1.8 prime time average up 13% from last year, making it the biggest gainer among general-entertainment networks. "We've created success with movies and sports," said Jack Wakshlag, Turner Broadcasting's chief research officer, pointing to TNT's highly rated NASCAR events and original movies Door to Door and Miss Lettie & Me, which ranked among the year's top original movies.
Nickelodeon and USA, both flush from breakout hit shows, each finished with a 1.7 average. Nick, which increased ratings 6% over last year, is enjoying robust ratings in both prime time and daytime for its latest hit SpongeBob SquarePants. And USA summer hits The Dead Zone and Monk stand as two of cable's highest-rated original series this year. Nonetheless, USA's ratings were flat compared with 2001.
Fox News Channel boasted one of the year's biggest gains, up 20% from last year. After news viewing soared after 9/11, Fox News proved that its talk-radio style was the recipe for viewers, too.
For the first time in its six year history, Fox reigned all year as the top-rated news channel. The O'Reilly Factor rules as the top-rated cable news show. and, in recent months, Fox's Hannity and Colmes has ousted CNN's Larry King Live for the No. 2 spot.
In contrast, Fox's news rivals CNN and MSNBC have shed audience, CNN dropping 10% to a 0.9 rating and MSNBC sliding 33% to a 0.4 average.
Two other big names with declining ratings: A&E and Discovery Channel. Each is down 17% to a 1.0.
Trading places with Discovery is its sister network TLC, the home of cult hit Trading Spaces . TLC's ratings climbed 11% this year to a 1.0. But, without Trading Spaces' impressive ratings—which regularly surpass a 3.0—Turner's Wakshlag contends TLC "would be a network that would be losing ground."
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