The Biz: Cable's Hits and Misses
The Walking Dead
As time goes on, more viewers will no longer know the difference between broadcast and cable networks (just ask Conan O'Brien). The disparity in ratings is disappearing, too. Here are the channels that provided the big ratings successes — and busts — of 2010.
HIT: History The success story of the year is how History has reinvented itself into the gathering place for guys who find Nirvana in driving along the back roads of America to shop for rusty old gas-station signs or turning the dusty stuff in their garages into fast cash. There must be a lot of them. American Pickers and Pawn Stars helped boost History's viewership by 36 percent and turned it into a Top 5-rated cable network.
HIT: MTV Whenever MTV comes up with programs that make grown-ups feel like the collapse of civilization may be near, you can safely assume its ratings have gone up. Jersey Shore, 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom have boosted the channel's audience by 24 percent compared to last year. Perhaps the folks at sister channel VH1 should start using the same watercooler, as their ratings were down 32 percent.
MISS: Hallmark Channel Merging the two great brand names of Martha Stewart and Hallmark seemed like a match made in cable heaven. But not many viewers came to the domestic diva's table when her library of shows took over the channel's daytime lineup. Hallmark's audience shrunk 25 percent from 2009 levels. The channel has cut back on Martha in daytime, but it isn't giving up as it has several new projects in development with her.
HIT: TNT New episodes of the distaff cop drama Rizzoli & Isles averaged 8.8 million viewers, a new record for a scripted basic cable show. The series solidified TNT's transition from a destination for Law & Order repeats to the riskier business of original series.
HIT: ABC Family Does Pat Robertson know he's still on this channel? Racier fare such as Pretty Little Liars lifted the ratings among viewers ages 18 to 49 by 25 percent and led to a promotion for channel boss Paul Lee, who is now running the entertainment division for ABC.
HIT: AMC If you're going to do a show about zombies, it's not a bad idea to launch it on Halloween. The Walking Dead set a ratings record for an AMC premiere when it scored 5.3 million viewers and has become its biggest hit. Critics have even taken to calling AMC the new HBO. But the canceled Rubicon proved that you can't survive on good reviews alone.
MISS: CNN Corporate parent Time Warner points out that prime time accounts for only 10 percent of CNN's business, which is extremely profitable. But a ratings decline of 36 percent is troubling nonetheless, as CNN tries to maintain its nonpartisan standing while Fox News and MSNBC get a steroid boost from their commentators. "The challenge is what happens when news events are not particularly compelling," says Turner Broadcasting research chief Jack Wakshlag. "Being nonpartisan doesn't mean you don't have to try to be more interesting." So far, the new 8pm show Parker Spitzer hasn't reversed the tide. Says Wakshlag, "We were hoping for larger numbers, but we'll be patient."
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