Cable: The Numbers Game


As cable's audience swells, more networks are sharing in the feast. Cable titans TNT and USA Network—no big surprise—grabbed the top ratings for the second quarter, but some niche channels are surging.

MTV, Fox News, History Channel, Sci Fi Channel and Discovery Channel ranked among cable's most-watched. ESPN, always a strong performer in fall and winter, pulled in better ratings than Lifetime. In total, 15 cable networks averaged more than 1 million viewers in prime time for the quarter, which spanned March 29-June 27. Four of them—MTV, History, Sci Fi and A&E—were well short of that mark a year ago.

While cable networks compete against each other for viewers and ad dollars, they can celebrate a collective win: commanding a larger audience than the seven broadcast networks. Cable claimed a 52.3 share of prime time viewing for the quarter, versus a 41.8 share for CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, UPN, The WB and Pax. It is the sixth straight quarter that cable has bested the broadcasters in share of viewership, according to Turner Entertainment analysis of Nielsen data.

Turner's TNT leads the charge. The network averaged 2.76 million viewers in the second quarter, up 9% from last year, to become the most-watched cable channel. It was also top-rated among the key 18-49 and 25-54 demos. Rival USA Network, tops in the first quarter, pulled in 2.14 million viewers in prime in the second, a 17% improvement over the year-ago period. MTV was the most popular cable channel among adults 18-34.

Cable networks now turn their attention to the third quarter. A major foe looms in August: the Olympics. NBC should command big ratings. But, with coverage on USA Network, Bravo, MSNBC and CNBC, cable could bask in an Olympic glow, too.