Cable TV Moves Into Fall Season

For the first time, cable is clobbering the broadcast webs on their own turf — the fall season.

But it hasn’t been on the strength of “Nip/Tuck” or “Queer Eye”-sized firstrun series triumphs.

In fact, the top-rated cable nets the past few weeks have been driven by sports (ESPN) or presidential debates (Fox News). And aside from ESPN’s football, no cable series comes close to the season’s top 50 broadcast programs.

The area where ad-supported cablers are gaining ground, though, is that niche networks are now seemingly able to woo viewers on the strength of branding alone.

Cable, as a category, has overtaken broadcast primetime viewership for the first four weeks of the fall season, scoring a 31.5 national household rating and 51.3 share, according to Nielsen. The major networks combined have posted a 27.3 rating and 44.5 share.

This was an inevitable achievement that comes on the heels of cable’s other historic gains over the past couple of years, such as beating the broadcast webs for an entire season and then during the May sweeps.

Broadcast execs are quick to fall back on the argument that six networks vs. all of basic cable is an unfair comparison.

ABC VP of audience analysis Larry Hyams says there isn’t a show on cable that comes close to a hit on broadcast.

“What’s fueling cable numbers isn’t original programming. It’s all the off-network shows,” Hyams says. “Spike starts growing after they start airing ‘CSI’ repeats.”

Still, Lifetime head of research Tim Brooks argues that cable’s gains signal the lack of breakout shows across the board. At a time when the broadcasters are pulling out the big guns in marketing and promotion, the gap is significant.

“The broadcasters have always had more audiences tune in during its premiere weeks, It’s the time when they are doing their maximum promotion,” Brooks says.

To-date, most of fall’s winners have come courtesy of ABC. (See boffo ratings for frosh dramas “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.”)

Not that members of the wired world haven’t fired off a number of their own heavily marketed originals in the past two months. Rookies that debuted to so-so numbers include MTV’s “Laguna Beach,” Bravo’s “Manhunt,” Comedy Central’s “Wanda Does It” and TBS’ “He’s a Lady.”

FX senior VP of research Steve Leblang chalks part of the ho-hum ratings up to a slew personality-free shows. Exec noted the original “Joe Schmo” and Fab Five from “Queer Eye” as big draws from a pop culture standpoint. (Both shows premiered during summer, but continued to build throughout the fall.)

More and more networks — Sci Fi Channel, Court TV and A&E, for example — are commanding significant sampling for almost anything they throw on the air, much in the same way that Nickelodeon and Disney Channel have become default stops for kids and tweens.

“People are relating to these channels as brands. Lifetime is for women. FX is for serious drama fans. Whatever they put on, audiences will at least try out. Even if there is no monster hit on the schedule,” Brooks says. “That’s tremendous loyalty that broadcasters have a tougher time achieving.”

The entire article can be read here.

Credit: Denise Martin/Variety/Yahoo