13 cable nets see big Q1 ratings boosts

USA sweeps all three key adults demos, total viewers

Thirteen of ad-supported cable's top 40 networks notched double-digit ratings gains in the first quarter of 2009, a period that was also marked by a few violent shifts in the other direction.

According to Nielsen ratings data for the three months ending March 29, while the first- and second-tier nets accounted for an aggregate 5.2% increase in nightly deliveries, a handful of networks sustained declines of 10% or more in prime.

As expected, USA Network swept all three demos and total viewers, averaging 1.54 million adults 25-54 (an increase of 18% vs. the first quarter of 2008), 1.46 million viewers 18-49 (up 15% year-over-year) and 665,000 18-34s (up 16%). All told, USA drew an average nightly audience of 3.26 million total viewers, an improvement of 12% vs. the year-ago period.

Second place on the quarter went to Fox News Channel, which has been on a tear, averaging 2.26 million viewers, representing 25% year-over-year growth. The news net boosted its standing among the core news demo by 20%, averaging 515,000 adults 25-54.

TNT closed out the quarter in third place, averaging 2.15 million viewers, a 2% uptick. The Turner net grabbed second among adults 25-54 (1.08 million, up 5%), while taking third among viewers 18-49 (1.02 million, up 1%) and 18-34 (455,000, up 2%).

Fourth place went to TBS, which slipped 7% in prime with an average delivery of 1.86 million viewers. After TBS won the 18-34 demo outright in 2008, the net slipped 10%, averaging 635,000. TBS also finished second among 18-49s (1.11 million, down 6%) and claimed third with the 25-54 set (961,000, a drop of 5% vs. Q1 '08).

Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite averaged 1.86 million viewers between 8-11 p.m. –– Nick programs for the first two hours of prime before handing the baton to the older-skewing NAN at 10 p.m. –– a dip of 2% vs. the same time a year ago. Through March 22, Nick averaged a kids-market best 1.01 million kids 6-11 between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., down 13% vs. the year-ago period. The Viacom net also drew 1.46 million kids 2-11, a small decline vs. 1.55 million in Q1 '08.

Rounding out the top 10 are ESPN, which soared from ninth place to sixth with 1.56 million viewers, a jump of 13%; A&E, which grew 6% to 1.54 million viewers; Cartoon Network, which averaged 1.47 million viewers in Q1, an improvement of 24% year-over-year; ABC Family, up 16% to 1.41 million nightly viewers and FX, which remained in the upper reaches with 1.35 million viewers, a decrease of 4%.

Among cable nets that ranked between Nos. 11-40 in primetime, Headline News showed the greatest quarter-to-quarter percentage increase, growing 54% with an average audience of 656,000 viewers. Also making great strides in Q1 09 were Oxygen, which grew its nightly deliveries by 24%, averaging 444,000 viewers; MSNBC, up 23% to 957,000 viewers; BET, growing 20% with 755,000 total viewers; Lifetime Movie Network (up 18% to 651,000); Food Network (up 17% to 1.02 million); National Geographic Channel (up 16% to 493,000) and Soap Net (up 11% to 343,000).

The five nets that lost the most ground in the quarter were MTV, which fell 17% with 859,000 viewers; Spike TV, down 13% (1.18 million); Lifetime, down 12% (1.24 million); truTV, down 12% (1.13 million) and CNN, which dropped 10% to 1.13 million viewers.

On the news front, MSNBC took second in the demo for the first time, averaging 346,000 adults 25-54 (up 6%), versus CNN's 343,000 (down 23%).

Non-ad-supported Disney Channel took third among all basic cable nets, averaging 2.24 million viewers in primetime, down 9% vs. the first quarter of 2008, when it drew 2.46 million viewers. The Mouse maintained its hold on the three core kids demos, averaging 1.21 million kids 2-11, 926,000 kids 6-11 (down 11%) and 773,000 tweens 9-14 (down 8%).