Cable Best at Keeping Audience Through Ad Breaks

Still, Broadcast Networks Hold On to More than 92% of Viewers

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The first-round results of Nielsen's "C3" ratings for all broadcast and cable networks is in, and there are a few surprises lurking in all that data when one looks at how well networks performed in keeping viewers through the commercial breaks.

Leading the pack is ESPN2, which topped the list with a 104% retention rate on average program ratings, meaning the number of viewers increased during commercial breaks when watched either live or over the course of three days, otherwise known as C3, in time-shifted viewing in prime time during the week of Sept. 24. (That boost is probably due to score-craving fans who click over to ESPN2 and its perma-scroll at the bottom of the screen.)

Boasting the second-highest retention rate was ESPN, with 97.7%, followed closely by Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite, with 96.6%. Rounding out the top 10 were Cartoon Network's Adult Swim (95.9%), Nickelodeon (95.8%), Hallmark Channel (95.7%), TV Land (95.6%), USA Network (95.6%), HGTV (95%) and Court TV (94.6%).

Broadcast was shut out of the top 15 entirely, with Fox the highest-charting of the Big Four at No. 18 with 92.9%. CW landed at No. 44 with 87.2%.

Faring less well
Faring less well were the MTV Networks that aren't Nickelodeon; MTV held up upfront negotiations earlier this year to do a percentage of deals based on program ratings, the previous industry standard. Comedy Central fared best at No. 23 with 92.7%, followed by Spike (No. 36, 90%), MTV2 (No. 41, 88.7%), MTV (No. 45, 87.2%), CMT (No. 48, 86.8%) and VH1 (No. 49, 84.6%). Comcast's E! Entertainment Television finished out the top 50 with 84.2%.

Despite varying degrees of viewer drop-off in prime time, cable is finishing a record-breaking third quarter in overall ratings. An industry-wide offering of new original programming marked the first time cable has seen ratings growth due to its ad-supported content rather than its household carriage.

"In prime, cable has a negative story, but once you broaden the perspective and look at other dayparts like weekend daytime, it's huge. The audience declines there are in line with broadcast, in the 5% range," said John Spiropoulos, VP-group research director at Mediavest. "People focus a little too much in prime-time hours."

As C3 data trickles in, the fourth-quarter scatter market will likely start to come under scrutiny for its efficiency as it relates to the premium ad rates, as measured by the cost of reaching a thousand viewers, paid by buyers in this year's upfront. (Scatter refers to commercial inventory the networks sell each quarter, rather than the time that is sold during the upfront period in May.)

Overselling fourth quarter
Several broadcast networks admitted to overselling inventory in the fourth quarter, leading to a tighter scatter marketplace for buyers to navigate with lower average ratings than those they paid for last year. The fourth-quarter scatter market is so tight that buyers and sellers are already looking ahead to 2008.

John Moore, senior VP-director of ideas and innovation at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen, said the networks are starting to get bullish on first- and second-quarter scatter. "But what we've seen in the marketplace is that no matter what you're negotiating off of, scatter is not an efficient buy vis-à-vis the upfront," he said.

"The networks all of a sudden are going out there, saying, 'We're not going to guarantee the buys we did a year ago,' and that's a problem. That might change estimates. So we're much more conservative on estimates, which would also increase CPMs," he said.

Mr. Spiropoulos said the current C3 metric is a "middle step" in a multiyear process toward more efficient commercial-ratings measurement. "The C3 or [average commercial minute] data in general isn't the final solution. We need to move to something more granular. What that is still in question. At minimum, it needs to be pods, but probably something greater than that, like clock minutes or aggregation of seconds at some level. Within a year or two we're going to see another round of new data because the industry is asking for it."

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Prime-Time Audience Retention for Cable, Broadcast Networks, First Week of Fall Season

1) ESPN2, 104.0%
2) ESPN, 97.7%
3) NICK at Nite, 96.6%
4) Adult Swim, 95.9%
5) Nickelodeon, 95.8%
6) Hallmark Channel, 95.7%
7) TV Land, 95.6%
8) USA Network, 95.5%
9) Home and Garden TV, 95.0%
10) Court TV, 94.6%
11) The Cartoon Network, 94.5%
12) Fox News Channel, 94.0%
13) Lifetime Television, 93.7%
14) BET, 93.6%
15) Headline News, 93.6%
16) TBS Network, 93.5%
17) CNBC, 93.0%
18) Fox, 92.9%
19) Weather Channel, 92.9%
20) NBC, 92.7%
21) ABC, 92.7%
22) CBS, 92.7%
23) Comedy Central, 92.6%
24) TNT, 92.6%
25) Animal Planet, 92.4%


Source: Hallmark Channel, using Nielsen Media Research data. Based on live-plus-three data. Week of Sept. 24 through Sept. 30, 2007, Household audience retention. Ranked Among Major Distributed Networks (More than 70 million subs).
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