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New to Nielsen's numbers

Smaller cable nets are about to report audiences for the first time 2/03/2002 07:00:00 PM Eastern

While most networks try to brag about their ratings, certain cable networks have gone years without letting anyone in on the precise size of their audiences. There's usually a reason for that, but some of those smaller outfits are starting to let some light shine on how many—or how few—viewers they actually have.

Rainbow Media networks WE: Women's Entertainment and MuchMusic USA received their first ratings for January, BBC America and National Geographic will be next for February, and TechTV will be rated come April. Oxygen plans to subscribe soon, likely in the first quarter.

If it's willing to pay, Nielsen Media Research will release a new cable network's ratings with as few as 5 million subscribers. The sample, however, is minute and considered unstable until distribution reaches about 10 million homes.

Some networks have waited years. TechTV (initially, ZDTV) has been on the air since 1998, MuchMusic since 1994, BBC America since 1998.

Nielsen typically gives networks a three-month sneak peek at their ratings. The research firm tracks but won't release the data until a channel subscribes.

When Nielsen's early projections look good, some networks move quickly. Lifetime spin-off Lifetime Movie Network and Walt Disney Co.'s SoapNet, for example, started subscribing to ratings within months of launch, even though their distribution was less than 10 million. But they have strong scores, around 0.8 for Lifetime Movie Net and 0.7 for SoapNet. In that respect, they're in line with established nets like Sci Fi Channel and Comedy Central.

The ones that waited tend to be looking at low, low ratings. Industry executives believe Oxygen is hitting only 0.2-0.3. TechTV is seen posting about 0.2.

Cable execs say Nielsen ratings give their young networks legitimacy. "While I love 'concept selling,' it has its challenges," said TechTV's Executive VP and COO Joe Gillespie. "You finally get your first report card."

Rainbow diginet MuchMusic USA posted a slim 0.1 rating in prime for January, making it the lowest-rated cable net. But President Marc Juris is not discouraged. "Love them or hate them," he says, "if you want to build a network, you have to have ratings."

National Geographic, fast emerging as a competitor to the Discovery networks, decided to release ratings to back up its branding. "When you get bigger, faster, you have to react as if you were more mature and more deeply penetrated," President Laureen Ong said of her two-year-old channel.

Even low-rated networks will have a better time with ad buyers after they start paying to be published by Nielsen. "It's hard to take them seriously until they have data they can sell on or post on," said Initiative Media Senior Vice President of Research Stacey Lynn Koerner.

In January, WE notched a modest 0.3 in prime time, two ratings points lower than its rival Lifetime. Currently, Johnson & Johnson is WE's exclusive advertiser, but the net will become fully ad-supported with its first upfront this spring. It needs some numbers to sell from, even if they're not huge.

Industry executives expected WE competitor Oxygen to come out with ratings in January, but the network delayed for at least a few months and would not disclose its projected ratings.

Vice President of Research Jo Holz says Nielsen data needs to match Oxygen's internal numbers before the net comes out with ratings. "We've had a big increase in our subscriber base. As you are rolling out rapidly in new markets, it takes time for subscribers to find you." Holz estimates Oxygen will be in 45 million homes by year-end.

Coming out
Cable networks releasing their first Nielsen ratings this year
Network Subs Launch*
*includes previous incarnations: e.g., WE started as Romance Classics
WE: Women's Ent. 43M 1997
Oxygen 32M 2000
TechTV 30M 1998
BBC America 26M 1998
National Geographic 24M 2000
MuchMusic USA 20M 1994