Ratings Plunge at Some of Cable's Largest Networks

Ratings Plunge at Some of Cable's Largest Networks

Today’s Wall Street Journal captures an interesting trend in our viewing habits that is at least in part driven by on-demand outlets like Netflix Streaming and the DVR. The real casualty appears to be syndicated reruns, the kind of shows that loop endlessly on TNT and USA:

The biggest drama on cable TV this year may be the ratings plunge under way at some of the largest networks, as the competition for viewers heats up and new technologies reshape some viewing habits.

So far this year, the average audience for 11 of the 15 most-watched cable channels at any time of day has fallen from a year earlier. The biggest losers include Viacom Inc.’s Nickelodeon, Time Warner Inc.’s TNT and News Corp.’s FX, which have each seen double-digit declines in percentage terms, according to Nielsen data through March 18. …

Overall TV viewing is also down, but only slightly. Since September, the total number of people watching TV at any given minute has dropped 2.7% from a year earlier, while audiences for prime-time shows on ad-supported cable channels have fallen a more modest 0.6%. The figures suggest that while there may be a shift toward online viewing, which isn’t reflected in traditional ratings, it accounts for only a small part of the decline.

Instead, many viewers appear to be simply changing the channel. A handful of networks have seen sharp growth in audiences, especially in the prime evening hours. History Channel, owned by Walt Disney Co., Hearst Inc. and Comcast Corp., is up 21% from a year earlier in prime time in the first quarter, with shows like the reality series “Pawn Stars.” TBS, a Time Warner channel, is up by a third, helped mostly by reruns of the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” AMC Network Inc.’s MC is also up, helped by the zombie hit “The Walking Dead.”

The big swings highlight a volatile new world, where viewers’ taste and behavior are especially fickle. The on-demand availability of shows on the Web and cable services may damp the appetite for repeats of featured programs, as well as the syndicated reruns that have long been a mainstay of many cable channels.

The bigger picture at work here is that we the people are now programming our own viewing habits. Through the use of the DVR and on-demand outlets, we can leap through the hundreds of channels and simply watch the shows we want to watch at their leisure. We are no longer tied to “whatever is on.”

This, at least for me, is the most fascinating part of the article:

Another factor may be that the market for pay-TV service is near saturation and there has been virtually no growth in the past year or so in the number of people signing up for cable channels. That means networks that were once able to increase their audience simply by getting into more homes now need to win viewers from other networks.

“The easiest days of cable audience growth are behind us,” said David Bank, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

Sandra Fluke’s efforts aside, it’s not as though the population has stopped growing. My guess is that the number of people cutting the cable cord and moving online is hurting any increase in market share gained by population increase.

Cable television is obnoxiously expensive, especially when compared to the less than ten dollars a month you pay for a service like Netflix Streaming.

With cable you get a bundled package that literally includes hundreds of channels you’ll never watch and what you do watch is interrupted by ten minutes of commercials every five minutes. Netlix Streaming might not have the selection cable does, but they have selection enough and no commercials.

What we’re seeing here is a slow-motion revolution in how we watch television. Starting with the DVR, people got a taste of what it’s like to avoid “appointment television” and take greater charge of their own viewing habits. And they like it.