Cable's Fall Push Falls Flat So Far

But comparisons to 2008 skewed by election coverage, economic crash

Cable's latest attempt for a fall land grab from the broadcast networks has so far come up fruitless. A Horizon Media analysis of broadcast premiere-week ratings (beginning Sept. 14) showed that primetime viewership of ad-supported cable networks as a whole declined year-over-year from 53.1 million viewers in 2008 to 49.9 million in 2009. While that drop is skewed because of the strong ratings generated by last year's coverage of the election and the economic crash, cable is still basically flat from last year.

The corresponding week in 2008 came during the heart of the presidential campaign and fresh off the announcement of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee. When you account for the unusually high viewing numbers for MSNBC, CNN, Fox News and CNBC during 2008's premiere week (6.8 million viewers), viewing levels for ad-supported cable are about even from last year.

“It is not like the broadcast networks benefited [from the apparent cable drop],” says Brad Adgate, senior VP at Horizon Media, noting that the broadcasters averaged less than 40 million viewers for the week after bringing in nearly 42 million last year. “What I think happened is that last year you had two things going on in September that you don't have this year: You don't have the competitive election campaign, and you don't have the economy collapsing.”

Some networks fared better than others, however. Food Network (up 26%), A&E (14%) and TLC (12%) all saw double-digit increases, while Lifetime (down 25%), TNT (24%) and TBS (13%) saw double-digit drops in viewership compared to last September.

“There are definitely some winners and some losers, but there are a lot of networks that are up,” says Julie Piepenkotter, senior VP of research for FX. The network itself was up 6% in viewers and 18-49, thanks to Sons of Anarchy, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and acquired features.

There are still a number of basic-cable originals to premiere in the fall. USA's White Collar will make its debut Oct. 23; season two of Sanctuary on Syfy is slated for Oct. 9; and FX's Nip/Tuck, which first broke into the fall during the 2005 season, is due to premiere its latest run Oct. 14.

Their performances will likely play a major part in determining how big a dent (if any) cable can make in the larger broadcast television audience. But cable chiefs are bullish as ever.

“It is going to become very challenging for the broadcast business model as cable gets more competitive,” says Syfy President Dave Howe, talking about the increase of originals from cablers during what was traditionally the broadcast season. “I think that it is a fundamental shift in the television landscape.”

On the premium cable channels, Showtime saw strong numbers for its new seasons of Dexter and Californication Sept. 27, with each show up from the previous year. Dexter drew 1.52 million viewers, while Californication pulled an audience of 821,000.

“I think it is just a measure of the fact that good shows with loyal followings break through,” says Showtime CEO Matt Blank. “We used to be pretty worried about premiering our shows this time of year, but we have done very well in the fall season for the past couple of years.”

HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Bored to Death also premiered strongly on Sept. 20 to 1.1 and 1 million viewers, respectively, despite being up against a high-profile NFL game on NBC and the Emmy Awards on CBS. The following week, Curb held relatively steady at 1.05 million viewers, while Bored dropped off a bit to 714,000. And solid veteran Entourage continued to perform relatively strongly, bringing in 1.87 million viewers for its Sept. 28 airing.