Cable's summer of love  

Sector's power growing as b'cast numbers wane

It's been a summer to remember for basic cable.

Ad-supported cable networks collectively are outperforming the six broadcast networks this summer in the adults 18-49 demographic by more than 2-to-1, the largest margin ever, according to Turner Research data released Wednesday.

Ad-supported cable nets — a group that includes most basic cable outlets with a few exceptions, like Disney Channel — collectively are averaging a 52.4 share in the demo this summer, compared with broadcast's 24.2 share.

Several cable programs have set record highs this summer — most recently exemplified by the Disney Channel original movie "High School Musical 2," which averaged 17.2 million total viewers in its premiere Friday to become the most-watched basic cable telecast ever — while broadcast shows are slipping.

"This has been a record-setting and perhaps precedent-setting summer in many ways for the television business … and a landmark summer for ad-supported cable in many ways," TBS Inc. chief research officer Jack Wakshlag said.

Cable has seen multiple new series become hits this summer — including TNT's "Saving Grace," USA Network's "Burn Notice" and Lifetime's "Army Wives" — while broadcast hasn't had any new series break out on the order of CBS' "Survivor," Fox's "American Idol" or ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." Even with the modest success of new game shows "The Singing Bee" at NBC, "Don't Forget the Lyrics" at Fox and "Power of 10" at CBS, no broadcast network has shown growth this summer, with drama series leading the declines.

"The days where people said 'pack it up' in the summer … and TV didn't have to focus on the summer because no one was watching TV, those days are gone," Wakshlag said. "There is more TV viewing in the summer today than five years ago on an annual basis. There is no reason to shy away from or not program aggressively in the summer."

For instance, the top three ad-supported cable series of the summer (TNT's "The Closer," 7.9 million; "Saving Grace," 5.6 million; and USA's "Monk," 5.1 million) are outperforming the top three series five years ago ("Monk," 4.5 million; USA's "The Dead Zone," 4.3 million; and MTV's "The Real World: Chicago," 3.5 million) by a significant margin.

He noted a few reasons for the uptick, including cable nets' aggressive programming and the improved quality of summertime programs.

Meanwhile, on the broadcast side, viewership for the top three series this summer — NBC's "America's Got Talent" (11.1 million) and "Singing Bee" (10.1 million) and Fox's Thursday installment of "So You Think You Can Dance" (10.2 million) — is down compared with five years ago, when CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (14.8 million), "Everybody Loves Raymond" (12.6 million) and "Becker" (11.1 million) led the pack.

But despite basic cable's charge, the Big Four broadcast networks are still outpacing cable in primetime on an individual basis among total viewers, with CBS averaging 6.9 million since May 28, followed by Fox (5.9 million), NBC (5.6 million) and ABC (4.7 million), according to Nielsen Media Research. And despite the fact that the broadcast networks aired more original programming this summer than ever before — mostly unscripted — their schedules still are repeat-heavy.

Among all basic cable networks, Disney leads the summer in primetime with 3.1 million total viewers, followed by USA (2.8 million), TNT (2.5 million), TBS (1.7 million) and Lifetime (1.6 million). The top three cable networks are all outperforming broadcast network the CW (1.9 million).

The cable networks showing the biggest year-over-year gains in 18-49 are music network Fuse (up 120%), which shifted to running more movies, and Discovery Times (up 77%), which benefited from shows including "Risk Factor" and "American Pulse."

Lifetime executive vp research Tim Brooks said that this summer marks a "turning point" with 11 original scripted cable series averaging a 2.0 rating or higher.

"There's never been a summer when so many individual cable series have popped — and in particular, scripted series, which are always hard to do," he said.

Brooks said big marketing campaigns are partially the cause of the ratings growth but noted that most cable networks already have "very distinct personalities," thereby giving them an advantage over broadcast when promoting new shows.

"If you do a marketing campaign for 'Army Wives' on Lifetime, for example, that fact that it's on Lifetime already tells you something about the show," he said.

The most-watched basic cable telecasts of the summer are "Musical 2," followed by the movie's lead-out, a sneak peek of the upcoming animated series "Phineas and Ferb," which averaged 10.8 million. Friday's episode of "Hannah Montana" on Disney (10.7 million), the June 18 season opener of "The Closer" (9.5 million) and an encore airing of "Musical 2" (8.4 million) round out the top five.

"Saving Grace" ranks as the most-watched new original series of the summer, while USA's miniseries "The Starter Wife" leads in 18-49 among new programs on the ad-supported cable networks.

Cable also has been seeing success with such new unscripted series as History Channel's "Ice Road Truckers," TLC's "L.A. Ink" and Bravo's "Flipping Out."

Brooks said broadcast has been hurt by the fact that most of its new summer series tend to be "derivative" and "formulaic." He sees cable's uptick as a trend as its shows mature.

"I think that establishing series that do as well as or in some cases better than broadcast shows is the last great barrier cable has to overcome," Brooks said. "Once upon a time cable came nowhere near broadcast; that has changed."
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