TNT scores with NBA playoffs

Network drew 3.6 average in primetime for May

TNT's record-setting NBA playoffs run clinched the May primetime ratings race, as postseason hoops helped the Turner network draw an average crowd of 3.6 million total viewers.

According to Nielsen ratings data for April 27-May 31, TNT's average delivery marked a 22% improvement over its year-ago draw (2.93 million viewers). The ratings increase was largely driven by TNT's slate of 43 NBA playoff games, which averaged 4.71 million viewers, up 24% over the net's 2008 postseason coverage.

TNT last month accounted for five of ad-supported cable's most-watched programs, including Game 4 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, which drew 10.1 million viewers on May 26, making it the top-rated NBA playoff game in cable TV history. Two nights later, the fifth Cavs-Magic contest delivered a hair under 10 million viewers.

In keeping with its NBA results, TNT also swept the three major demos, averaging 1.94 million viewers 18-49 (up 20% over May 2008), 1.89 million adults 25-54 (up 24%) and 997,000 viewers 18-34 (up 22%).

USA Network took second place on the month, averaging 2.86 million total viewers, an increase of 12% versus its year-ago delivery (2.53 million). The network also claimed second place among two of the three demos, averaging 1.32 million adults 25-54 (up 11%) and 1.24 million viewers 18-49 (up 3%).

The NBC Universal cable property was flat among the youngest of the three demos, averaging 558,000 viewers 18-34, good for a third-place finish.

USA's biggest deliveries were served up by its Monday night WWE Raw showcase and the original drama series In Plain Sight. The two-hour Raw averaged 5.31 million viewers on April 27, while the May 17 installment of In Plain Sight drew 5.04 million viewers.

ESPN also got a major lift from the NBA, as the sports net's coverage of post-season action averaged 4.89 million viewers, up 19% versus a year ago. All told, ESPN averaged 2.1 million viewers during the month of May (up 16% year-over-year), while drawing 1.07 million 18-49s (up 18%), 1.03 million 25-54s (up 18%) and 573,000 18-34s (up 26%).

The Western Conference Finals accounted for four of ad-supported cable's top 10 most-watched programs in May, including Game 4, which drew 9.73 million viewers, and Game 5 (9.24 million). The lone non-NBA entry in the upper echelon was the season premiere of TLC's Jon & Kate Plus 8, which scared up 9.8 million gawkers on May 25.

Fox News Channel continued to grow its nightly audience, improving to 1.97 million viewers on the month, an increase of 24% versus May 2008. FNC also boosted its target demo, averaging 466,000 adults 25-54 in prime, a lift of 31% versus the year-ago 357,000.

Meanwhile, the cable news landscape continued to shift, as MSNBC drew neck-and-neck with CNN in prime. On the month, CNN averaged 768,000 total viewers in prime, a loss of 22% versus its year-ago delivery (984,000), edging MSNBC by a mere 6,000 viewers. MSNBC was up 10% in total viewers, per Nielsen ratings data.

If the race for second place in cable news was tight, the demo contest was a blowout. MSNBC continued to hold a commanding lead over CNN in the news demo, averaging 254,000 adults 25-54 (down 9%), versus 195,000 (down 37%). So pronounced was CNN's demo drain that sibling net Headline News threatened to pass it. HLN averaged 193,000 adults 25-54s, up 41% over its May 2008 performance.

Closing out the top 10 among all ad-supported cable nets were: Nickelodeon/Nick-at-Nite, which averaged 1.58 million viewers in prime (down 7%); TBS (down 8% to 1.52 million); FX (up 29% to 1.3 million); Discovery Channel (down 2% to 1.26 million); A&E (up 8% to 1.26 million); and History Channel (up 8% to 1.13 million).

Among all basic cable networks, non-ad-supported Disney Channel finished the month in third place, averaging 2.16 million prime-time viewers. The Mouse notched its biggest night on May 3, when a new installment of Hannah Montana delivered 5.02 million viewers at 8 p.m. Lead-out Sonny with a Chance retained 90% of the Miley Cyrus set, drawing 4.53 million viewers in the 8:30 slot.

Nickelodeon's iCarly was the top draw among kids' programming, as the one-hour movie special Date a Bad Boy drew 7.17 million viewers Saturday, May 9 (8-9 p.m.). On the month, iCarly averaged 5.37 million viewers, making it the most-watched general-entertainment show on cable.

Pulling back the aperture, cable's top 40 nets were a mixed bag, as 17 networks experienced double-digit ratings increases, while another 8 channels endured losses of 10% or greater.

In addition to the aforementioned gainers, BET notched the most dramatic increase on the month, lifting its average nightly audience 58% to 721,000 viewers. Also showing significant increases were: CMT (up 30% to 393,000); Lifetime Movie Network (up 22% to 606,000); Animal Planet (up 22% to 562,000); TLC (up 21% to 986,000); Food Network (up 20% to 932,000); VH1 (up 19% to 736,000); Soap Network (up 15% to 361,000); National Geographic Channel (up 14% to 395,000); and Versus (up 11% to 718,000).

Hallmark Channel withstood the greatest decline, falling 26% to 859,000 viewers. Lifetime dropped 24% in prime, averaging 994,000 viewers, while Sci Fi Channel fell 21% (1.02 million). Spike TV also dropped 21% (938,000); and sibling net MTV continued to founder, falling 15% with an average delivery of 759,000 viewers. Speed Channel was down 14% in prime, averaging 374,000 viewers.