First Syndication, Then The Nets, Now Cable Is Claiming The Summer Gold

In the last few weeks, there has been a fierce fight over who is king of what has traditionally been the sleepiest time of the year in the TV business.

Less than two weeks ago, CBS declared an early end to summer and a ratings victory for the season. Around the same time, the Syndicated Network Television Association released figures showing that its programming is more resilient than broadcasters' during summer. And of course, NBC is still banking on the Olympics to deliver a ratings triumph.

Now cable is getting into the act--specifically, Turner Broadcasting. A presentation delivered yesterday by Turner's Chief Research Officer Jack Wakshlag declared ad-supported cable the true summer winner.

Wakshlag revealed data showing that total prime-time ratings among adults ages 18-49 for the seven broadcast networks were down 6 percent prior to the Olympics and flat through the first week of the Athens coverage. Before the games started, six of the seven networks were down in ratings, he said.



What's interesting is that these numbers follow a summer where several networks, particularly Fox, talked a lot about making a concerted effort to provide original programming.

Despite their chirping, the networks actually programmed fewer original hours this summer. Just 39 percent of the programming aired by the top four networks was original programming--down from 40 percent last summer.

And for the most part, network originals have bombed out--as CBS has had perhaps the greatest success with repeats of its crime dramas. Average household ratings for first-run network shows were down from 4.7 to 4.3 (four network average) while repeats were down as well, according to Turner.

Even with NBC's Olympic coverage, the networks are losing out to cable, said Wakshlag. He claimed that NBC's coverage is driving up PUT levels (+31 percent through the first week, from 54.7 to 58.0 year-over-year) rather than stealing from cable. Ad-supported cable is down 17 percent versus last summer in total viewership, although that represents a drop of just 1.8 ratings points.

Less surprising, though still noteworthy, is that network TV's share of prime-time viewing is at an all-time low at 35.7 percent year to date. "What amazes me is that that number is about a third," said Wakshlag, who talked about how in the past a hit show used to deliver a share of viewership in that range. "Now it takes seven networks to deliver that."

Wakshlag used that point to attempt to shill for top-tier cable networks, which he says should not be categorized any differently than the networks. He pointed to data that showed a shrinking ratings margin between average broadcast and cable ratings. According to his research, there is a difference of just 1.7 ratings points between the top four networks and the top four cable networks against adults ages 18-49, down from a 3.2 differential in 1995.

"The top-tier cable programs are clearly substitutable for a large amount of broadcast," he said.

Of course, Wakshlag used yesterday's presentation to discuss TBS and TNT, which he showed ranking in the top three in a variety of demographic categories this summer (TNT is tops against adults ages 25-54; TBS is number one versus adults ages 18-34, driven by "Sex and the City" reruns). Wakshlag credited the success of TBS' rebranding as a comedy station over the past several years, which he labeled as "shifting from Mayberry to Manhattan."

To further prove his assertion that cable is in the same league as broadcast, Wakshlag even took a shot at his own corporate family. During the summer, TNT actually beats its cousin The WB in total prime-time audience and adults 25-54 numbers, while approaching that of UPN.

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