Cable Nets Aim for 1.0 Rating
Off-nets, originals and movies help make little networks get bigger
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/10/2003 8:00:00 PM
When Henry Schleiff arrived at Court TV in 1998, he took over a thinly-distributed network with a scant 0.1 rating in prime. Now, the channel is poised to cross a major cable threshold: the 1.0 monthly rating.
|The 1.0 Wannabes|
|Network||July '03 HH||July '02 HH|
|Source: Nielsen Media Research
|Sci Fi Channel||0.9||0.9|
Reaching a 1.0 rating, which, depending on distribution, translates to about 1 million viewers, is an important milestone on the path to joining cable's elite. Of the 52 Nielsen-rated cable networks in July, only 14 recorded a 1.0 rating or better. Those 14 include cable's biggest draws, with general entertainment powerhouses like TNT and Lifetime, as well as kids nets.
Another batch of networks hovers just below the benchmark with 0.8 and 0.9 ratings. In addition to Court TV, Sci Fi and FX are close to breaking through and staying above 1.0. TLC and MTV regularly cross over and back, depending on how their hit shows are performing. The Hallmark Channel and AMC—both with retooled strategies—are building, each having scored a 0.8 in July. HGTV, one of the more popular niche nets, regularly records a 0.8.
To move Court TV up, CEO Schleiff first had to dump prime time trial coverage in favor of acquired off-network dramas. More recently, Court moved to all originals in prime with strips like Forensic Files and weekly shows like Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice. The strategy has clicked with viewers. Since 2000, Court has eked out an additional tenth of a rating point each year. In about the same time, distribution swelled from 30 million subscribers to 80 million.
"It is predictable growth," said Schleiff. "We have cutting-edge, smart, good programming." Just as important, he said, Court's demographics have also improved.
Of course, the surest way to break through is with a hit show. As Trading Spaces bubbled up to become one of cable's top shows, TLC's ratings also rose—even passing older sibling Discovery Channel in some months.
The Sci Fi Channel had its own hit last December with the $40 million Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries Taken. The 10-part series averaged 4 million viewers and Sci Fi's ratings soared to a 1.6 in prime that month. But as great as Taken was, said Sci Fi CEO Bonnie Hammer, it's what comes after that really matters. "Events are great for awareness, but you need a foundation to keep people coming back on a weekly basis," she said.
Sci Fi followed Taken with the well-received Children of Dune miniseries and new episodes of Stargate SG-1. Sure, ratings have come back to Earth, but Sci Fi has had year-to-year growth ever since.
A "home-run show" is key, explains Horizon Media's research chief Brad Adgate, because it helps "maintain your core audience and bring in new viewers, and is a way promote your other shows."
But not always. FX, for example, has had trouble translating its hits into overall ratings success. Viewers are loyal to gritty cop drama The Shield and NASCAR Winston Cup races and new plastic surgeon drama Nip/Tuck is one of cable's summer hits. Still, FX's prime time average has not popped.
Between originals, network executives say, you need strong theatricals and acquired series to carry the load and made-for movies to spark ratings. Off-network drama Law & Order helps fuel TNT's ratings dominance. And, between high-rated originals like Monk and Peacemakers, off-nets like Jag and Adam Sandler movies carry the load for USA.
Hallmark Channel is following a similar strategy. Come September, reruns of M*A*S*H and Matlock will anchor the schedule and the channel will step up original movie production—one per month for now, eventually expanding to two. It also has acquired movies from Hallmark Hall of Fame and Walt Disney Co. A new Saturday Western block is pulling in 1.0 ratings.
Aiming to get younger, AMC recently cast off older-skewing movies in favor of more contemporary titles and original programming, like the clay animation celebrity spoof show The Wrong Coast. The plan is working, ratings are going up and the audience is skewing younger.
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