Basically, Cable Wins '03

For second year in a row, more viewers than broadcast

Hold the champagne for two more weeks, but cable networks are already crowing about their 2003 victory over broadcast TV. For the second straight year, ad-supported cable networks are commanding a larger share of TV viewing than the broadcast networks.

Through Dec. 14, cable was pacing with a 50.3 share, while the seven broadcast networks combined for a 44.6 share, according to Nielsen Media Research data supplied by Turner Broadcasting System.

In 2002, cable edged out broadcast by 2 share points. This year, that margin has widened to almost 6 share points.

"As far as this being a horse race, this horse race is over," said Turner Chief Research Officer Jack Wakshlag. Now, he adds, the race is among the broadcasters, "to see who can lose the least."

Broadcast nets started the year strong, outgunning cable in the first quarter. The next two quarters, though, went to cable, and fourth quarter apparently will as well. Winning the fourth quarter—when broadcast networks have their premiere seasons and supercharge their November sweeps—would be a first for cable.

Of course, any broadcast network's ratings are gigantic compared with any single cable channel. It is getting more common, though, for a cable show to pull in broadcast-like numbers. Sports are the best example. On ESPN, five Sunday Night Football
telecasts attracted more than 10 million viewers each, and the NBA All-Star Game on TNT pulled in 10.8 million. Cable shows as disparate as Trading Spaces, The O'Reilly Factor
and SpongeBob SquarePants
have at times raked in more than 7 million viewers.

TNT is on track to finish as the most-watched cable channel, with an average 2.3 million viewers nightly in prime and a 2.0 household rating. (NBC or CBS, by contrast, might get 10 million viewers in a night.) Lifetime, last year's No. 1 cable net, recorded 1.8 million viewers and a 1.7 household rating, off about 20% and 15%, respectively.

The best story on cable in 2003 may be the Disney Channel. With prime time ratings up 31% and hits like Lizzie McGuire
and Lilo & Stitch, the network
made gains in every kids demo, including a 40% increase in girls 2-11 and a 37% rise in kids 2-11. Even the boy numbers—one area where Disney has been challenged—have seen a double-digit rise.

Disney's gains, though, have not come at the expense of Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network. Nick's Nielsen marks are about even with a year ago, an average 2.1 million viewers and 1.7 rating in prime. The same goes for Cartoon Network, which is attracting 1.7 million viewers and a 1.6 rating. In the kids demos, delivery has been steady.

The year-end tallies also bode well for cable news networks, although last spring's war in Iraq props ratings up some. Still, Fox News is now ensconced in cable's top 10—for the year, averaging 1.7 million viewers, up 46%, and a 1.7 rating. Rival CNN follows with 1.1 million viewers, a 23% increase, and a 1.0 rating.

Another headline for 2003: It certainly helps to have a hit show. Big ratings for Law & Order
help fuel TNT's dominance. Thanks largely to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Bravo's viewership is averaging about 100,000 more viewers in prime than last year, a 38% increase. And FX is up about 10% in total viewers and in adults 18-49, attributed primarily to original hit Nip/Tuck.

But broadcast networks still have a very strong advantage over cable, says Lifetime's research chief Tim Brooks: "Their marketing machine is unparalleled. When they have an event, America knows. It is much harder for a cable net to create that kind of mass awareness in short period of time."