USA nabs rating victory from TNT

'Burn Notice,' 'WWE Raw,' bring in viewers

USA Network held off rival TNT to win the second-quarter ratings crown, averaging 1.37 million adults 18-49, an increase of 9% over its Q2 '08 delivery. Despite a five week stretch in which TNT's coverage of the NBA Playoffs churned up record ratings for the Turner net, USA was able to hold on to preserve a 3.4% margin of victory in the demo.

The race for total prime-time viewers was less dramatic, as USA cruised to an easy win, averaging 3.17 million viewers, an increase of 15% year-over-year. USA's Q2 delivery topped TNT's 2.64 million viewers by 16.8%, per Nielsen ratings data.

USA also glided to another victory among the adults 25-54 set, averaging 1.47 million members of the demo, an improvement of 15% versus the same time a year ago.

For the quarter, USA posted its best program delivery with the season premiere of Burn Notice, which drew 7.5 million viewers upon the addition of seven days of DVR viewing. (The day after the show's June 4 opener, Nielsen live-plus-same-day data had Burn Notice's delivery pegged at 6 million viewers.)

USA also drummed up big numbers with a special commercial-free presentation of WWE Raw, which drew an average 6.78 million viewers on June 22 between 9 p.m. and 11:08 p.m. Hour two of Raw averaged 7.3 million viewers.

The quarter gave rise to the debut of USA's newest original drama series, Royal Pains, which leads out of Burn Notice Thursday nights at 10 p.m. Per Nielsen's live-plus-seven-day data, Pains drew 6.92 million viewers June 11; as such, DVR playback accounted for a 24% increase in viewers versus the originally announced 5.59 million.

In addition to its three second-place finishes, TNT won the 18-34 demo outright, averaging 645,000 viewers, an increase of 11% versus Q2 '08.

TNT enjoyed a huge ratings burst thanks to its NBA post-season coverage, which accounted for seven of the quarter's top 20 most-watched programs on ad-supported cable. The Turner net's May 26 telecast of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals drew a record 10.1 million viewers upon application of DVR playback. That delivery represents a 12.6% improvement versus the live-plus-same day total of 8.97 million viewers, putting the lie to the notion that sports are rarely time-shifted.

Game 4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers-Orlando Magic series drew 10 million viewers on the night of the 28th, while earlier in the week, Game 2 scared up 9.01 million viewers.

TNT also continued to draw a crowd with its original drama franchise, The Closer, which returned for its fifth season June 8. The season premiere stands as ad-supported cable's most-watched scripted series telecast of the year thus far, averaging 8.45 million viewers, up 18% from the original live-plus-same-day reckoning (7.14 million).

Fox News Channel grew its nightly delivery by 34%, taking third place among total viewers with 2.13 million viewers, of which 518,000 were members of the core 25-54 news demo. FNC boosted its demo by 50% over the year-ago period, when it averaged 345,000 adults 25-54.

Like TNT, ESPN also enjoyed a lift courtesy of the NBA, as its Playoffs coverage raised it two notches to number four among total viewers. The sports net averaged 1.71 million viewers in prime, claiming fourth place across the board among the demos: adults 18-49 (827,000), adults 25-54 (812,000) and viewers 18-34 (419,000).

On the quarter, ESPN served up six of the top 20 most-watched programs on ad-supported cable, including Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, which drew 9.76 million viewers on the night of May 25. Two nights later, Game 5 of the Lakers-Nuggets tilt drew 9.26 million viewers, and the deciding game of the series delivered 8.49 million fans on Friday, May 29.

Nickelodeon/Nick-at-Nite closed out the top five with 1.63 million viewers, edging out TBS by a slim margin (3,000 viewers). Nickelodeon drew its largest audience of the quarter with the one-hour iCarly movie, iDate a Bad Boy, which scared up 7.17 million viewers May 9 at 8 p.m. Time-shifted viewing accounted for an 11% increase in viewership, as the iCarly special's live-plus-same-day delivery was estimated at 6.47 million.

Rounding out the top 10 were: Discovery Channel (1.35 million viewers), A&E (1.3 million), FX (1.29 million) and Cartoon Network (1.17 million).

Among the core TV demo, the top 10 included the aforementioned USA, TNT and ESPN, as well as third-place TBS (down 3% to 965,000 adults 18-49). Discovery Channel took fifth on the quarter, averaging 746,000 adults 18-49, up 1% versus the prior-year period, followed by FX (up 17% to 726,000), A&E (down 1% to 627,000), Nick/Nick-at-Nite (down 6% to 581,000), Comedy Central (down 11% to 579,000) and Spike TV (down 19% to 572,000).

According to Nielsen ratings data for the three months ended June 28, thirteen of ad-supported cable's top 40 networks notched double-digit ratings gains in the second quarter, while six suffered declines of 10% or more. All told, the top 40 nets accounted for an aggregate 3.7% increase in nightly deliveries.

While the top 10 was relatively stable, with only USA, Fox News Channel and FX growing by 10% or more––FX's nightly delivery of 1.29 million total viewers reflected a 15% increase versus the year-ago period––it was a mixed bag for cable nets that ranked between No. 11 and No. 40 in prime. The biggest gainer of the quarter was BET, which was already enjoying significant ratings momentum before it drew 10.7 million viewers on Sunday, June 28, with its annual awards show. After the sudden death of Michael Jackson three days prior to the event, network brass made a radical revision of the program, transforming it into an all-star tribute to the late singer.

On the quarter, BET was up 44% in total viewers, averaging 859,000.

Also making great strides in Q2 were: Headline News, which grew 40% with an average audience of 556,000 viewers; TLC, which improved 25% to 1.07 million viewers thanks in large part to the surge in popularity of its Jon & Kate Plus 8; and Food Network, which enjoyed yet another stellar quarter, growing 20% to 1.04 million viewers.

Other gainers were: Lifetime Movie Network (up 20% to 641,000); Versus (up 18% to 502,000, on the strength of its NHL Playoffs coverage); Soap Net (up 18% to 369,000); MSNBC (up 15% to 797.000); CMT (up 13% to 416,000); VH1 (up 11% to 774,000) and National Geographic Channel (up 10% to 420,000).

The six nets that lost the most ground in the quarter were: Lifetime, which fell 28% with 1.08 million viewers; Spike TV, down 27% (1.01 million); Hallmark Channel, which dropped 22% to 948,000 viewers; MTV (down 14% to 778,000); Sci Fi Channel (down 12% to 1.1 million) and CNN (down 10% to 863,000).

On the news front, MSNBC for took second in the demo for the second consecutive quarter, averaging 268,000 adults 25-54 (down 1%), versus CNN's 240,000 (down 19%).

Non-ad-supported Disney Channel took third among all basic cable nets, averaging 2.38 million viewers in prime, up 9% versus the second quarter of 2008, when it drew 2.19 million viewers. The Mouse maintained its hold on the three core kids demos, averaging 1.28 million K2-11, 992,000 K6-11 and 831,000 'tweens 9-14.

Disney saved its biggest programming highlight for the very end of the quarter, as the June 26 premiere of its original movie Princess Protection Program drew 8.53 million viewers, making it the most-watched scripted program on basic cable of 2009.

Of the top 50 programs on basic cable in the quarter, only 16 were scripted efforts. Sports (the NBA Playoffs, in particular) accounted for the lion's share of the most popular programs on cable, followed by the indefinable hybrid of sports/scripts (WWE Raw), reality (Jon & Kate Plus 8), kids' programming and two awards show (the 2009 MTV Movie Awards and BET's MJ-inflected gala).

Per Nielsen, the single most-watched program of Q2 '09 was the May 25 premiere of Jon & Kate, which out-drew the BET Awards by 3,000 viewers (10.7 million total).