For more than three decades, cable TV programmers enjoyed steady ratings gains—mostly at the expense of broadcasters. Inspired efforts like AMC’s Mad Men and FX’s Sons of Anarchy notwithstanding, those steady ratings increases sometimes belied the quality of programming they ran on their channels (sorry, Snooki). But with the cable business finally reaching saturation when it comes to adding new subscribers, and viewers blessed with more on-demand choices than ever, many top cable channels have recently experienced their worst ratings declines ever.
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As The Wall Street Journal was first to notice Monday, ratings across top cable TV networks have taken a big, unexpected hit in the first quarter of this year. Measuring total day ratings performance, 15 of the top 20 basic cable channels experienced ratings drops in the first quarter—a rather unheard of benchmark in recent years, when channels steadily grew their audience as U.S. cable, satellite and telco TV service providers added subscribers. From 2001 to 2011, ad-supported cable’s full-year ratings average increased from a 26.6 rating to a 37.4, according to metrics researcher Nielsen.
But as paidContent reported last week, subscriber growth is down for multichannel operators, with the previously explosive expansion of telco services Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-Verse finally ebbing.
Perhaps unable now to tap a regular infusion of new cable and satellite subscribers, big cable channels like USA Network, TNT and—most notoriously—Nickelodeon are seeing major ratings declines, in some cases for the first time ever.