Cable's Clean Sweep
As season opens, broadcast share slips behind ad-supported networks
By Anne Becker and John M. Higgins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/17/2004 8:00:00 PM
The fall season might be sizzling with surprise hits, but broadcast networks are still collectively losing share to cable.
For the first time, ad-supported cable networks beat broadcast in the initial week of a new season and are holding on to that advantage, according to analyses of Nielsen Media Research data by Turner Broadcasting and NBC.
Basic cable has secured 43% of prime time viewers for the first three weeks of the season, beating broadcast networks by two percentage points. During the same period last year, broadcasters comfortably led cable, 45% to 39%. (Other viewers are watching independent stations, pay cable and PBS.)
According to NBC's analysis, meanwhile, basic-cable viewership has zoomed 10%, to 45 million, while broadcast networks have dropped 9%, to 42 million.
"The trend is toward cable," says Jack Wakshlag, chief of research at Turner Broadcasting, although he cautions that the numbers are almost a dead heat in the 18-49 demo most critical to advertisers. Turner's analysis shows cable with a slight lead, 41.6% of the demo, compared with broadcasters' 40.4%. NBC counts a bit differently and has broadcasters with a 43% share, edging out cable's 42%. Still, even NBC's method shows broadcast's 18-49 viewership dropping 6% and cable's rising 9%.
Cable-industry executives attribute the gains to the fact that cable is airing more off-broadcast hits like CSIand Law and Order and has been scoring with stronger original series. Also, cable news networks such as Fox News and CNN are seeing gains from election coverage and the presidential debates.
Broadcasters insist that the discussion is misguided. They point out that, while they're locked into the same seven network outlets, the number of basic-cable channels grows every year. Nielsen now includes 54 cable networks in its core Galaxy system ratings reports, up from 50 a year ago, and there are dozens more channels nipping away.
"It's like a pizza," says Tom Bierbaum, vice president of ratings and program information at NBC. "At one time, you had four or five very big pieces in the home. Now you have 100 slices in the pizza, and they're going to be a smaller size."
But the broadcast networks still perform better on an individual basis than the cable networks.
"It is somewhat significant that, in aggregate, cable is now ahead of broadcast in total viewers, because it gives you an idea of the landscape and there is some kind of shift going in," says Steve Sternberg, executive vice president of audience analysis at Magna Global USA. "But on an individual basis, the broadcast networks are still way ahead."
They're way ahead. But even in that area, the gap is closing.
Wakshlag points out that the divide between the top four broadcast networks and the top four ad-supported cable networks has shrunk by 50% over the past decade. Between the third quarter of 1993 and the third quarter of last year, the difference went from 5.4 to 2.7.
"The erosion on broadcast is driving their numbers lower, and the abundance of cable networks isn't hurting cable because they're getting stronger in terms of programming and marketing," he says.
Even when the networks enjoy a roaring success in the ratings, it's not quite the jackpot it once was. ABC has scored big with Desperate Housewives and Lost, but the network's Tuesday- and Friday-night comedies are performing so poorly that the network's overall share of 18-49 went only to 3.9 from 3.8 during the same period last year.
When a broadcaster loses its touch, viewers' having so many other options can be brutal. NBC is getting hammered in every demo, off 12% in total viewers and down what must be a terrifying 16% in adults 18-49. The network's troubles owe to more than just the stumble of adult cartoon Father of the Pride and nobody's pal Joey. Ad buyers are also startled at the slide of the usually reliable warhorse Law & Order. The original edition of the franchise, which is under attack from CBS' hit CSI: New York,has dropped 15% in total viewers and 11% in 18-49s.
That's huge, because the three shows of the L&O franchise are critical to NBC's schedule. Spinoff L&O: Criminal Intent isn't faring much better, off 7% in total viewers and 8% in 18-49s. L&O: Special Victims Unit, however, has risen about 7%.
Fox is walking the ratings tightrope as well. The network decided to debut some shows in the summer and delay the rest until after its coverage of Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series is over. The network's total viewership has plunged 37% so far this season.
One ad-agency researcher says that a useful way to analyze Fox is to filter out special events (like the Emmys) and sports events. Seen that way, Fox's total viewership is down only 8%.
Even so, Fox is undoubtedly looking forward to the January return of American Idol.
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