USA tops 2009 cable ratings

Net gains 14% in fourth straight annual win

USA Network made a clean sweep of the 2009 ratings race, marking the fourth consecutive win for the NBC Universal powerhouse. Per Nielsen ratings data (a blend of live-plus-seven-day and two weeks of live-plus-same-day numbers), USA drew a record 3.27 million viewers in primetime, a 14% improvement over its year-ago delivery.

For the period spanning Dec. 29, 2008, through Dec. 27, 2009, USA swept ad-supported cable's three top TV demos, averaging 1.49 million adults 25-54, an increase of 11% versus 2008, while serving up 1.32 million viewers 18-49 (up 5%). The network also held off TBS to take the younger set, drawing 616,000 viewers 18-34.

USA effectively shattered the records it set in 2008, when it averaged 2.86 million total viewers, 1.34 million adults 25-54 and 1.32 million viewers 18-49.

(When factoring in all basic-cable nets, this year marks USA's second straight win among total viewers. In 2007, non-ad-supported Disney Channel topped the total cable universe with 2.7 million total viewers, edging USA's 2.68 million in the same period.)

On the year, USA boasted cable's two most-watched new series in "Royal Pains" (7.47 million viewers per week) and "White Collar" (5.68 million). Both programs also ran away with their target demos, as "Pains" served up 3.56 million adults 25-54 and 3.15 million viewers 18-49, while "Collar" averaged 2.29 million 25-54s and 2.04 million 18-49s.

USA also accounted for half of cable's top 10 returning series. With an average delivery of 7.19 million viewers, "Burn Notice" closed out the year second only to TNT's "The Closer." That said, the wry spy drama topped the demos, averaging 3.61 million adults 25-54 and 3.27 million viewers 18-49.

Other big earners for USA were: "Monk," which ended its eight-season run on Dec. 4 in front of a crowd of 9.44 million viewers; "Psych," which averaged 5.21 million viewers in the first half of its third season; and "In Plain Sight," which scared up 5 million viewers in its sophomore effort.

While USA held onto its perch atop the cable ratings pile –– the network has been the top draw every year since 2005 –– TNT and ESPN once again duked it out for second place. Record ratings for "Monday Night Football" helped put ESPN over the top, as the sports giant averaged 2.3 million total viewers, up 8% from its 2008 showing.

As of Dec. 9, ESPN was still in third place, with an average nightly delivery of 2.22 million, trailing TNT by some 40,000 viewers.

ESPN also took second place among the two major demos, averaging 1.11 million viewers 18-49 (up 6%), while improving its prior-year delivery of 25-54s by 8% (1.12 million).

Among the 18-34 demo, ESPN's deliveries increased 4% to 531,000.

Thanks to its weekly NFL showcase, ESPN owned each of the year's top 15 most-viewed programs. On Oct. 5, the network broke the all-time record for a cable telecast, averaging 21.9 million viewers with its coverage of the "MNF" clash between the Packers and Vikings. Of that total, 11.9 million viewers fell into the 18-49 camp, while 11.8 million were members of the 25-54 crowd.

More recently, ESPN nearly broke its own newly hatched record, as its Nov. 30 Saints-Patriots telecast drew 21.4 million fans.

On the year, ESPN averaged 14.4 million viewers over the course of its 17 "MNF" telecasts, an increase of 20% versus the 2008 campaign.

TNT in 2009 drew 2.26 million primetime viewers, up 2% versus the prior-year average. The net put together its best demo numbers with the 25-54 set, averaging a third-best 1.1 million viewers, up 2% versus 2008.

Per Nielsen, TNT took fourth place among 18-49s, growing 1% to 1.03 million viewers, while gaining 3% among the 18-34 set (451,000).

TNT carried three of cable's most-watched new programs in 2009, including: "Leverage" (4.21 million total viewers/2.14 million adults 25-54); "Hawthorne" (4 million viewers/1.82 million adults 25-54); and "Dark Blue" (3.29 million viewers/1.6 million adults 25-54).

With an average delivery of 7.75 million viewers, "The Closer" continued its reign at the top of the original-series heap. On the eve of its sixth season on TNT, the drama took second among returning series in the core demo, averaging 3.2 million adults 25-54.

Fox News Channel closed out the year in fourth place, drawing a nightly crowd of 2.2 million viewers, up 7% from 2008. A new president and a number of pressing political issues (health care, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) gave FNC commentators plenty to discuss, which in turn helped lift the core news demo. The network averaged 545,000 adults 25-54, up 10% from a year ago, good for a 12th-place finish. (Perhaps more tellingly, when compared to the most recent election-free year, 2007, FNC is up 50% in total viewers and 55% among the demo.)

TBS held onto fifth place among ad-supported cable nets, averaging 1.84 million total viewers in prime, a drop of 7% from last year's 1.99 million. After winning the 18-34 demo in 2008, TBS slipped a peg to second place, averaging 595,000 (down 7%).

The Turner net dropped to third among 18-49s (1.07 million, a 5% decline versus the previous year), while retaining fourth place among adults 25-54, falling 6% to 936,000.

Rounding out the year's top 10 are: Nick at Nite, A&E, FX, ABC Family and Cartoon Network.

After posting a 30% jump in viewership in 2008, Nick at Nite showed less momentous growth in 2009, delivering 1.73 million viewers (up 2%). A&E was up 9%, to 1.48 million viewers, while FX grew 10% (1.37 million).

ABC Family saw its primetime deliveries increase 4% on the year, averaging 1.36 million viewers, while tenth-ranked Cartoon Network slipped 3% to 1.3 million.

Ten of ad-supported cable's top 40 networks notched double-digit ratings gains in 2009, while seven nets suffered declines of 10% or more. All told, the top 40 nets accounted for an aggregate 2.4% uptick in nightly deliveries.

While the top 10 was relatively stable, with only USA and FX growing by 10% or more, it was a mixed bag for cable nets that ranked between No. 11 and No. 40 in prime. The biggest gainer of the year was Food Network, which was up 26% in total viewers, averaging 1.12 million. The Scripps Net franchise catapulted from No. 25 in prime in 2008 to No. 16.

Also making great strides were BET, which boosted its primetime deliveries by 23% to 775,000 viewers, and TLC, which grew 17% to 1.07 million viewers. Lifetime Movie Network lifted its average 16% (658,000 total viewers), while National Geographic Channel improved 12% to 457,000. CMT grew 11% in prime (399,000), while Headline News upped its average delivery 10% to 561,000. HGTV also upped its nightly deliveries by 10%, averaging 1.2 million viewers.

Those that just missed notching double-digit gains are: A&E (up 9% to 1.48 million viewers); Travel Channel (489,000); Oxygen (426,000) and Soap Net (353,000).

On the other side of the ledger, a handful of cable nets experienced vertiginous declines in 2009. After surging 69% in 2008, CNN gave up a good deal of ground this year, falling 30% to 903,000 primetime viewers. The news net also experienced a 42% drop among the core demo, averaging 264,000 adults 25-54. (When compared to the 766,000 viewers/244,000 adults 25-54 it drew in the last non-election year, CNN was up 18% and 8%, respectively, versus 2007.)

After rocketing 82% in prime a year ago, MSNBC endured a harsh reentry, falling 22% in prime to 811,000 viewers. Although it beat CNN in the 25-54 demo, averaging 280,000, that delivery represented a 24% year-over-year decline. As with the other news nets, a comparison to 2007 is in order. Versus the 507,000 viewers it drew two years ago, MSNBC's primetime deliveries for 2009 were up 60%. By the same token, MSNBC's demo was up 39% from its 2007 tally (202,000).

Lifetime dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in recent memory, moving from the No. 7 spot in prime to No. 15 as its deliveries fell 20% to 1.19 million viewers. This despite landing two shows in the top 10 among returning cable series ("Army Wives," "Project Runway") and introducing a new hit ("Drop Dead Diva" drew 3.37 million viewers in its first season).

After posting a 7% increase in 2008, Hallmark Channel this year fell out of the top 10, averaging 1.11 million viewers (down 17%). Spike TV fell 17% to 1.06 million total viewers, while its corporate sibling Comedy Central hit a bump in the road, dropping 10% to 993,000 viewers.

Viacom flagship MTV couldn't find the brakes, sliding another 10% in prime (805,000). Closing out the year at No. 25, MTV hasn't finished in the top 20 since 2006.

All told, the core TV demo was a mixed bag for cable in 2009, as 26 of the top 40 nets were flat-to-up among adults 18-49. Nine of those nets enjoyed increases of 10% or more versus 2008.

The year's top performers in the demo were: USA (1.38 million viewers 18-49); ESPN (1.11 million); TBS (1.07 million); TNT (1.03 million); FX (780,000); A&E (706,000); Discovery Channel (673,000); ABC Family (613,000); Syfy (607,000) and Spike TV (591,000).

Ad-supported cable's top 10 programs among the demo were: ESPN's "Monday Night Football," which averaged 7.65 million viewers 18-49 in its first 16 games; USA's "Burn Notice" (3.27 million) and "Royal Pains" (3.15 million); FX' "Sons of Anarchy" (3.04 million); Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" (2.78 million); Lifetime's "Project Runway" (2.76 million); Bravo's "Top Chef" (2.7 million); TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus 8" (2.51 million); Comedy Central's "South Park" (2.47 million) and TNT's "The Closer" (2.42 million).

Non-ad-supported Disney Channel closed out 2009 as the second-most-watched network in the basic cable universe, growing its primetime deliveries 7% to 2.53 million total viewers. The Mouse continued to outperform the competition in the core footy-pajama demos, averaging 1.05 million kids 6-11 (up 4%), 1.35 million viewers 6-14 (up 3%) and 1.35 million kids 2-11 (up 6%).

Disney's 'tweens deliveries were up 3% to 865,000.

The network drew its biggest crowds with feature-length original movies. On Friday, Aug. 28, Disney served up 13.5 million viewers with the 106-minute "Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie," per Nielsen L+7 data. That final reckoning represents an 18% increase over the original live-plus-same-day number (11.4 million).

"Wizards" now stands as the second-most-popular film in the 13-year history of the DCOM franchise. Two years ago, Disney drew 17.2 million viewers with the premiere of "High School Musical 2"; upon application of live-plus-seven-day data, that delivery rose 8% to 18.6 million.

A month earlier, the crossover "Wizards on Deck With Hannah Montana" drew 10.6 million viewers, cementing the strength of the Mouse's Friday-night lineup.

The reception that greeted the "Wizards" film/weekly series seems to suggest that Disney has found a sure-fire replacement for Miley Cyrus, who will leave the fold in 2010, following the fourth and final season of "Hannah Montana." Newcomer Selena Gomez anchors the "Wizards of Waverly Place" and starred in the fourth most-watched DCOM, "Princess Protection Program," which drew 8.53 million viewers on June 26.

With seven days of time-shifted viewing, Gomez and her "Princess" cohorts drew 9.87 million total viewers, an increase of 17% over the initial live-plus-same-day draw.