|Lifetime TV scored the highest ratings for alternative fare during last year's Super Bowl. This year, the network will air 'Another Women's Husband' during the same period as the game. The movie is the story of two women who meet at a swim club, become friends and only later discover they are involved with the same man.
Last year's Super Bowl captured a whopping almost 90 million viewers, which, in TV terminology, translated into a 41.4 rating and 63 share. (A share is a percentage of TV households that have their sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all TV households. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. households with TV.) Most often, the remainder of the ratings favors those networks that snub the big-game hype rather than exploit it with their halftime shows, pregame warmups and complementary programming.
Cable's highest ratings during last year's Super Bowl went to Lifetime Television, which stuck to airing its tried-and-true women-focused original movies and miniseries. It snared a 2.1 rating for prime time -- on par with most of last year's non-Bowl broadcast networks -- and will stick with the formula again this Sunday.
"The trick to going against the Super Bowl as well as other major cultural events -- the World Series, Olympics -- is to play to your brand and do what you're known for," said Tim Brooks, executive vice president of research at Lifetime Television. "We do what we're already known for -- our original movies."
This year's lineup includes movies and a miniseries from the Lifetime vault. Super Bowl noise drowns out any opportunity for airing a premiere, and culling movies from Lifetime's inventory keeps programming costs low as well.
Lining up marathons of hit shows past and present is another popular counterprogramming approach -- networks hope to hook viewers early on and keep them through the night. Last year TNT's Charmed marathon averaged a 1.9 and 2.0 rating during the day, dropping to a 1.4 at prime time; Hallmark's Little House on the Prairie marathon came away with a 0.8 rating during prime time; and Court TV had Forensics File on all day, snaring it a 0.7 prime-time rating.
Bravo countered with one of the most avant-garde programming options of the night: episodes of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy during the day and a gay-weddings marathon in the evening. The network was rewarded with a 0.3 rating during prime time.
"If I were running Spike -- and the job's open right now -- I'd run a CSI marathon this year," Mr. Brooks said. "CSI does get ratings, it's pre-sold and gets a lot of women viewers, which to some extent counters the Super Bowl." But Mr. Brooks isn't in charge, and the testosterone-charged network is airing three one-hour Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Specials, starting at 2 p.m., followed by Ultimate Fighter, Police Videosand its regular WWE Sunday Night Heat.
One cable network is caught in a strange sports scenario: ESPN. The sports broadcasting giant, which will have coverage devoted to the Super bowl before and after, is again airing a figure-skating competition, which last year scored it a 0.6 rating. "They just have to turn out the lights," said Mr. Brooks.
Mr. Brooks, who's also a TV historian and co-author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, said the strategy to winning a heavily competitive situation, particularly in the '80s and '90s, was to acknowledge it, jump on the bandwagon and try to add a unique own spin to it.
"About the only time that works is when you don't have a brand anyway and you're creating a way for people to seek you out," he said.
For example, 12 years ago, when Fox was trying to position itself as the cheeky alternative broadcast network, it rode the Super Bowl publicity and drew people to its station by scheduling a special live edition of its comedy sketch show In Living Color opposite halftime. It stole 29 million viewers and a 13.4 rating away from the Super Bowl.
This year, MTV (which produced last years's controversial halftime show) and MTV2 will attempt to create a buzz around MTV2's new branding initiative involving a two-headed dog. Both channels will air a halftime relaunch of MTV2, featuring a back-to-its-roots format of music videos, vintage MTV shows such as Headbanger's Ball and new programming.
"Clearly this year's halftime is looking at a different demographic and attitude -- polar opposite, if you will -- from our audience," says David Cohn, general manager of Viacom's MTV2, referring to the show's headliner, Paul McCartney. "Your average 50-year-old fan isn't going to switch over to MTV2 at halftime, but we think our demo will be looking for something else during those 18 minutes."