Chalk it up to the disruptive influence of the Winter Olympics or the vicissitudes of the overall basic-cable landscape, but as far as prime-time ratings are concerned, the first quarter of 2010 was completely schizoid.
According to Nielsen ratings data, exactly half of the top 40 ad-supported cable networks showed improvement in prime-time versus the year-ago period, while the remaining 20 channels lost ground. All told, eleven nets notched double-digit ratings gains in Q1, a period that was also marked by more than a few violent shifts in the other direction.
While the first- and second-tier cable nets accounted for an aggregate decrease in nightly deliveries of less than 1 percent, 10 cable outlets sustained declines of 10 percent or more in prime.
As expected, USA Network swept all three demos and total viewers, averaging 1.39 million adults 25-54 (down 10 percent versus the year-ago period), 1.29 million viewers 18-49 (down 12 percent year-over-year) and 584,000 18-34s (down 13 percent). All told, USA drew an average nightly audience of 3.14 million total viewers, a decline of 4 percent from the year-ago 3.27 million.
Second place on the quarter went to Fox News Channel, which continues to dominate the cable news space, averaging 2.33 million viewers, representing 3 percent year-over-year growth. FNC boosted its standing among the core news demo by 16 percent, averaging 599,000 adults 25-54.
TNT closed out the quarter in third place, averaging 2.12 million viewers, a 1 percent downtick. The Turner net grabbed second among adults 25-54 (1 million, off 7 percent), while taking third among viewers 18-49 (966,000, down 5 percent) and fourth among 18-34s (445,000, down 2 percent).
Fourth place went to ESPN, which jumped two spots with an average delivery of 1.86 million viewers––a 20 percent improvement versus Q1 ’09. The sports net finished fourth among 18-49s (830,000, up 14 percent) and claimed fifth with the 25-54 set (840,000, a jump of 16 percent).
ESPN claimed three of the quarter’s most-watched programs, including the Monday Night Football finale between the Vikings and Bears that drew 17.1 million viewers on Dec. 28. Bristol also whipped up a crowd with the Jan. 31 NFL Pro Bowl (12.4 million viewers) and the Jan. 2 Alamo Bowl (7.87 million).
Nick-at-Nite retained fifth place on the quarter, drawing an average crowd of 1.83 million viewers between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., marking a 7 percent increase. In total day, NAN precursor Nickelodeon beat all comers, averaging 2.34 million total viewers.
Rounding out the top 10 are: TBS, which slipped two places to sixth with 1.73 million viewers, a drop of 7 percent; A&E, which grew 7 percent to 1.65 million viewers; History, up 14 percent to 1.5 million viewers; ABC Family, which improved 5 percent in prime to 1.49 million viewers and Cartoon Network, which averaged 1.32 million viewers in Q1, a shortfall of 11 percent year-over-year.
Among cable nets that ranked between No. 11 and No. 40 in prime, Investigation Discovery showed the greatest quarter-to-quarter growth on a percentile basis, leaping 56 percent with an average audience of 364,000 viewers. Also making great strides in Q1 ‘10 were: E!, which grew its nightly deliveries by 24 percent, averaging 708,000 viewers; CMT, up 18 percent to 449,000 viewers; Oxygen, which gained 17 percent to amass its all-time largest quarterly audience (524,000 viewers) and Lifetime Movie Network (up 15 percent to 750,000).
Also growing were the two Scripps Networks Interactive flagships. HGTV soared 13 percent to 1.29 million nightly viewers, while Food Network was up 12 percent in Q1, averaging 1.15 million. Turner’s truTV saw its deliveries rise 10 percent, serving up an audience of 1.24 million.
Dangerously close to dropping out of the top 30, CNN lost the most ground in Q1 ’10, dropping 39 percent to 691,000 total viewers. More tellingly, CNN saw its core demo fade by some 42 percent, as a mere 200,000 adults 25-54 tuned in to the news net over the course of the last 91 evenings.