How To Analyze Cable During The Upfront
The upfront season is underway and the cable hype has begun. As each network unveils its fall schedule and strategy, it generates a fair amount of industry press. Many of these stories don't focus on ratings, of course, because most cable networks don't have good audience stories to tell.
This is one reason we're starting to see a number of dubious "studies" about which cable networks people like most, which have the most attentive commercial viewers, or which one's influence viewers the most to buy products. Most of these studies should be taken with a grain of salt (or less). They are the types of analyses we always see when there is nothing much to say about ratings.
Year-to-year ratings seldom tell the whole story for cable, however. Keep in mind that there is often only one network (either ESPN or USA, depending on the season) that averages even a 1.0 rating among adults 25-54. Low ratings and small sample sizes result in flukey numbers being reported by Nielsen. If you look at three-year rating trends by cable network, they tend to be all over the place. Just because one cable network is up by 20% over last year, does not mean its ratings will grow next
You need to examine two or three years of audience data to see what's really going on -- which networks are the most stable, which are really growing, and which ones tend to fluctuate from year to year. Looking at prime time from the fourth quarter over the past three seasons shows that only seven networks -- Adult Swim, BET, Bravo, ESPN, FX, History, and ION -- have improved their average adult 25-54 rating for two years in a row (I'm not including networks with under a 0.2 rating). Five of these seven are among the 15 top-rated networks (all but BET and Bravo).
During the past two seasons, these seven networks have grown their ratings as follows : ION (+95%), ESPN (+34%), History (+33%), Bravo (27%), BET (22%), ADSM (+10%), FX (+8%).
Of these seven networks, only three have moved up significantly in the rankings from two years ago - History going from 11th to 5th, ION going from 35th to 11th, and Bravo going from 26th to 17th.
That's not to say these networks are stronger than the perennially top-rated USA, TBS, and TNT. But they are the only ones that are really growing among adults 25-54.