It's not cable, it's television. Cable executives love to say that viewers no longer distinguish between broadcast and cable networks. Now, there are Nielsen marks to back them up. For the first time, ad-supported basic cable grabbed the dominant audience share over the seven broadcasters, 48% of prime time share compared to 45% for broadcast for 2002, according to Nielsen Media Research.
In 2001, cable claimed 45% of viewing share, while broadcast triumphed with 49%. "We're talking about cable as a mature business now," agreed Jack Wakshlag, Turner Broadcasting's chief research officer.
Of course, most people with cable get between 54 and 90 channels, including the broadcast networks, so cable viewers have a surplus of choice.
Still, says Initiative Media Research chief Stacey Lynn Koerner: "The gains are a wakeup call to the TV industry. We expect it in the summer, but we don't expect it in the regular season."
What made the difference this year? Many observers say it's because basic networks made more creative efforts than usual. Cable's biggest hits, from the surreal SpongeBob SquarePants
to homey Trading Spaces, tempted viewers because they can't to be found anywhere on broadcast.
"Cable creatively outran broadcast," said Starcomm Entertainment's Associate Director Kathryn Thomas. "We're existing in a hit economy, and this year those culture-shifting hits came out of cable."
Sure, hits build perception and bring new viewers who – it's hoped — sample the rest of a schedule. But hits are rarely responsible for a channel's ratings growth. Rather, work horses like theatrical movies, sports and acquired series tend to fuel ratings more consistently.
Original production is hardly a new venture for cable networks. Last year, though, cable shows caught fire like never before. There was a best actor Emmy for The Shield. The Osbournes
graced scores of magazine covers. Monk, a cable original, replayed on ABC after its premiere on USA Network. Sci Fi's Taken
miniseries played over 10 straight weeknights and repeated in fringe and late night; broadcasters could never dedicate that much time to one series.
The successes are inspiring more cable channels to gamble with ambitious originals. "Cable networks were sometimes shy about [a show] that is sensitive and adventurous," said MTV and VH1 Entertainment President Brian Graden. Now, he said, expect more channels to look for a "super-premium show ... to stick the entire brand to."
Not all cable programming last year yielded to expectations. Made-for-TV movies, which have fueled cable ratings since broadcasters shied away from them in the 1990s, have faltered. TNT's Big Time, about the early days of the TV industry, flopped with a 0.7 rating. Past TNT movies commanded mammoth ratings, like a 9.6 for 2001 Western Crossfire Trail.
"Movies were the most popular basic cable programs, and now series are getting all the attention," said MTV Networks research chief Betsy Frank.
Original movies like Confessions of a Campus Bookie
and biopic RFK
turned in sluggish ratings: a 1.2 and a 1.5, respectively. Even pay network Showtime is backing away from original movies in favor of developing series.
Of course, there were some exceptions. Lifetime's movies performed well, which Frank attributes to strong branding. TBS Superstation's action movie Atomic Twister
was the year's top-rated movie, with a 5.9 rating, and TNT's feel-good family flick Door to Door
earned a 4.7 rating.
A scripted series wasn't always the perfect formula either. Lifetime canned its freshman drama For the People, and A&E dumped its two original shows, 100 Centre Street
and Nero Wolfe. All three were ratings disappointments.