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If there’s one lesson to be learned from the year in cable, it’s that recognizable brands and personalities are the surest way to stave off the overwhelmingly downward trend ratings.
After another 12 months that saw some of the biggest players in ad-supported cable drop by varyingly dramatic double digits, those who grew — or, just as commendably, held even — did so in large part thanks to spinoffs and companion series (both scripted and reality) and the thrall of live events. The latter, it turns out, can be especially effective when Donald Trump is involved.
One of the best narratives of the year belongs to AMC. Outside of boasting the lingering draw of The Walking Dead, TV’s No. 1 series boasted the top 16 cable series telecasts of the year, AMC had the top three launches of 2015. And the top two, Fear the Walking Dead and Better Call Saul, are extensions of previous AMC properties — the latter being a long-awaited prequel to Breaking Bad. AMC finished the year up 9 percent among adults 18-49.
That was not the norm. Where the key demo is concerned, the downs far outnumber the ups. A mere five of the top 25 entertainment cable networks (AMC, Discovery, HGTV, Cartoon Network, E!)’ boasted a primetime block finished in the black.
Discovery owes some of its growth to the successful parlaying of 2013 breakout Naked and Afraid into a rare reality hit in spinoff Naked and Afraid XL. The series, which drew on past castmembers, was the No. 1 new unscripted show across the board and averaged 3.7 million viewers per episode. It also helped the network grow even more with its targeted adults 25-54, where it was up 4 percent, year over year, compared to 18-49’s 3 percent improvement.
Naysayers can point to the fact that I Am Cait may not have met the lofty expectations partly set by Diane Sawyer’s record-breaking sit-down with Caitlyn Jenner, but it proved that any new addition to the Keeping Up With the Kardashians catalog will draw viewers. It was one of the few shows to pop at all this year. For that, E! was up 2 percent in the key demo — a victory by any standard in the current landscape.
Even where younger viewers are concerned, familiarity bred success. Disney Channel finished the year as the most-watched network in total day, topping Nickelodeon for the first time ever, thanks to Descendants. The July telepic, which drew on familiar characters in the Disney brand, was the year’s most-watched on cable with 12.2 million viewers.
The heated battle between cable news institutions was also aided by recognizable reality personalities. The run-up to the 2016 presidential election started generating record interest in the summer. The cast of familiar candidates, including the addition of firebrand GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, brought an astounding 24 million viewers to Fox News Channel. For that, and for the many breaking news events that filled the calendar, FNC again finished No. 1 with adults 25-54 by a wide margin of victory (up 13 percent in primetime).
But it’s CNN that might be benefiting the most from all of the attention. On top of having an overall positive ratings narrative for over the past year, hosting three debates (two GOP and one between Democrats) certainly didn’t hurt the network. CNN finishes 2015 with a 30 percent improvement in the key demo and a 38 percent jump in primetime viewership.
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