Summer of cable love

Despite distractions, it's another banner season

It's been another good season for cable. Summer 2008 may not have generated as many ratings headlines for cable as last year, when Disney Channel's "High School Musical 2" blew away viewership records and there was a higher number of original scripted series bows, but the ad-supported cable networks still are hitting record viewership deliveries this summer. According to Turner Research data released Tuesday, the sector collectively is averaging 6 million more primetime viewers than 2004, the most recent year that included a presidential election and a Summer Olympics.

That group, which includes most basic cable networks with exceptions like Disney Channel, is averaging 51 million total viewers in primetime from May 26-Aug. 17, continuing an annual trend of growing summertime viewership. That figure represents a 13% increase over 2004 but less than a 1% increase over 2007.

Turner chief research officer Jack Wakshlag said summer TV viewing overall is on the rise for a few reasons, including a increase in the quality and number of original series on the air.

"There is more TV viewing this summer than ever before," he said. "That was true before the Summer Olympics started, and it has been true since. The growth has been driven by ad-supported cable, as is normally the case," as well as by the Beijing Olympics.

He cited research showing that, before the Olympics started, viewers were spending more time watching cable this summer compared with last year (an average of 31.7 hours a week through Aug. 3 vs. 30.9 for the same period a year ago), while the amount of time viewers were spending watching broadcast was down (6.8 hours vs. 7) for the same period a year ago.

Among basic cable's success stories this summer are Disney Channel's original movie "Camp Rock," the year's most-watched cable telecast; USA Network's "In Plain Sight," cable's most-watched new series; ABC Family's series "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"; and A&E Network's mini "The Andromeda Strain."

Several returning shows also have posted series highs, including Lifetime's "Army Wives," Oxygen's "Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood" and Bravo's "Million Dollar Listing." MTV's "The Hills" just returned to solid numbers, and E! has generated buzz with shows like "Denise Richards: It's Complicated."

At Turner, TNT's "The Closer" continues to rank as the most-watched cable series, while TBS' "My Boys" had a solid second-season run, and TruTV has been seeing growth since it was rebranded from Court TV on Jan. 1.

To date, USA Network is ranked No. 1 among the basic cable networks in total viewers and among adults 18-49 and 25-54, spurred by the fact that it has five of the top seven scripted series among total viewers and both demos, including "Burn Notice" and "Monk." Exec vp original programming Jeff Wachtel said USA has been hit minimally by competition from corporate sibling NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics.

"The fact that we and others have held up well against the Olympics is a testament to the strength of our shows and the core audience," he said.

ABC Family also is having a strong summer, thanks in part to "Secret Life," which ranks as its most-watched original series ever among total viewers and key demos including 18-34, 18-49 and persons 12-34.

"(Creator) Brenda Hampton really hit a nerve with 'Secret Life,' " network president Paul Lee said. "Now we have a real portfolio of original series, and it makes it much easier for fans to cross from one show to another. We're noticing that summer is still a great launchpad, but we're moving into 12 months a year."

Wakshlag said DVR viewing plays a significant factor in the final ratings for many cable shows. The series that gets the most boost in the 18-49 demo from DVR playback is Sci Fi Channel's "Stargate: Atlantis," which on average doubles its numbers when factoring in Live+7 data. Other shows that see big DVR-fueled ratings boosts are Bravo's "Project Runway," which typically rises by 73%; "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List" (68%); and Sci Fi's "Eureka" (60%).

Not every high-profile cable program is doing gangbusters, however. AMC's "Mad Men" has fallen 45% from its July 27 season premiere, and MTV's original movie musical "The American Mall" didn't come near "HSM" heights.

Wachtel noted that the competition for eyeballs keeps growing.

"The competition is stronger than ever," he said. "Our job is to just put out shows that we love and that fit within our brand and are well-executed — the rest is up to the audience."

Meanwhile, Wakshlag also touted the performance of the cable news networks in this presidential election year, saying that 58% of news seekers are getting their information from cable rather than the broadcast news, compared with 52% in 2004. He also cited data showing that CNN and MSNBC have gained viewers since 2004, while Fox News Channel's viewership has fallen, though that network still leads the trio. (partialdiff)