Powerpuff vs. mankind

Cartoon and USA tied for tops in cable's third quarter

Move over Stone Cold Steve and The Rock, blustering beefcakes of the WWF. Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles are gonna knock you out. The big-eyed trio of animated supergirls, better known as Cartoon Network's Powerpuff Girls, propelled Cartoon into a first-place tie in third-quarter prime time ratings with USA Network, now the former home of the WWF.

Cartoon and USA both finished the quarter with a Nielsen Media Re-search household rating of 2.0 in prime time, a slip for USA of 9% from last year and a jump for Cartoon of 18%.

"When you look at these ratings, you realize [Cartoon] isn't just a kid network anymore," said Tim Hall, Cartoon executive vice president.

Of course not: Adults comprise one-third of Cartoon's audience. Retro-'toons that adults remember from their kidhood, like Scooby Doo, Bugs and Daffy and Tom and Jerry populate prime time, but kids are definitely the target. Cartoon concentrates on prime time because there's no animation for kids in the period. Nickelodeon, the No. 1 network in total day for five years running, serves up off-network repeats at night. Cartoon pulls marketing stunts in the summer to carry the momentum into the fall. It worked last year. Cartoon's prime time ascent has been consistent for the last year.

On the flip side, USA has been falling for eight months, and now that wrestling has moved to TNN, the decline is becoming more pronounced. USA already dropped to fifth place in prime time in September, after losing just one night of wrestling in the period. TNN itself was flat for the quarter and up 14% for the month of September.

Erosion continues to plague FOX Family (down 22%) and BET (off 17%), because they don't deliver what they promise, said Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research for Lifetime. "There're two things you've got to do in this fragmented world: have a strong brand and deliver on that brand." The networks that are falling don't have a clear definition with viewers, and if they do, they don't deliver on it. With BET, they have a definition, but they don't deliver. When viewers get there, they don't have any high-profile series."

Other networks that posted ratings declines during the quarter were MTV, ESPN, TNT, TV Land, CNN and The Weather Channel. MTV slid throughout the summer months, but the network held its best new series for fall launches. VH1 reversed a similar trend with a blitz of new programs in recent months. MTV was also hurt by a 19% slip in the Video Music Awards, its biggest show of the year.

ESPN had bigger numbers last year with National Football League games, so the network posted a drop but still was No. 1 in prime time for the month of September (with a 2.3), but seventh for the entire quarter (with a 1.6).

TNT had very strong movies and miniseries in the quarter, but not strong enough to counter the drag of World Championship Wrestling ratings. Sources confirmed that the TNT parent (AOL and Time Warner) Turner may sell the franchise.

Networks with the biggest gains in the third quarter included Travel Channel, Odyssey and Court TV. Travel and Odyssey jumped 50%, and Court posted a 75% gain for its most-watched quarter since the January 1999 relaunch. Court also posted its very first 0.8 in September, an increase of 100% over last year. Other gainers were Comedy Central, History Channel, The Learning Channel, A & E, Discovery and Sci Fi, which had its third consecutive record-breaking quarter.