The book is essentially closed on 2014, and plenty of cable networks are probably just fine with that. The year saw big slides for many networks (A&E, TruTV, MSNBC) as ESPN inched its way up to No. 1 primetime status in all key measures.
This is a first for the sports network, though not much of a surprise given its seemingly fatigue-proof programming. With all but a few stray hours of the year now taken into account, ESPN nabs the top seat in average viewership, adults 18-49 and adults 25-54. (That data comes from Nielsen Media’s most current 2014 stats, which combine live-plus-seven and same-day ratings through the final Friday of the year.)
So whose thunder did ESPN steal? In overall audience and older adults, USA surrendered top dog status. The network, which has seen its lineup of originals shed some ratings power from the heyday of series like Burn Notice, lost a significant 21 percent of total viewers from 2013. Among adults 18-49, TBS ceded the crown to ESPN in its own 14 percent drop.
It has to be said that ESPN achieved its coveted status by essentially staying the course. The most the network grew was in total viewership, by a modest lift of 100,000 more viewers per night. Other heavy hitters saw their profile rise by managing to hold onto the status quo as neighbors dropped double digits. FX, a top 5 network with adults under 50 for the first time, hopped past TNT with another strong year for series like American Horror Story and the swan song of Sons of Anarchy. Thanks to TV’s highest-rated show in The Walking Dead, AMC also improved its ranking in spite of minor dips.
And if if FX leapfrogged TNT, it blew past A&E. The cable network, one of the biggest ratings champs of 2013, plummeted 30 percent in total viewers and adults 18-49 alongsideDuck Dynasty‘s fall from grace. If there’s a silver lining, at least this is probably the last time the network will have to endure comparisons to the lingering reality show’s astronomical highs.
A+E Networks’ flagship was not the only station to fall this year. History faltered for a second year, dropping from the 4th to 6th most-watched in primetime and losing a significant chunk of younger viewers. Other big cable players, such as TNT and Bravo, were down by modest increments. But significant drops came for TruTV, in the midst of arebrand from its Court TV past to a comedy hub, which shed a significant 31 percent in both adult demos and total viewers. Esquire, which took over from Style in late 2013, fell by roughly the same percentage.
One rebrand that’s working is FXX. Its first full year since taking over little-watched Fox Soccer’s spot on the dial catapulted it 89 percent in primetime viewership and 69 percent with adults 18-49. The network is beefing up its portfolio of originals on the FX sister, but the rise is thanks in large part to its successful roll-out last year’s $1 billion off-net deal forThe Simpsons‘ entire catalog.
WE tv’s less dramatic rebrand is also treating it especially well. The cable net climbed 39 percent in primetime viewership and 21 percent with adults 25-54 thanks to reality hits such as SWV Reunited.
On the pay cable front, HBO saw its evening audience inch up from 2013 by three percent. That incremental growth, which likely owes quite a bit to the live draw of Game of Thrones, comes at a time when cord-cutting is an even bigger part of the conversation. HBO is simultaneously seeing more viewers come from its streaming HBO Go app, going cable-free in 2015. Showtime, boasting less penetration than HBO, saw primetime drop 21 percent this year — though it too has app and on-demand viewership on the rise.
Cable news felt the heat of an increasingly fractured audience. The pull of alternate news media brought drops across the board, though reigning 13-year champ Fox News Channel managed to pull off the only growth in its genre. Primetime ticked up two percent thanks the first full year with the rejiggered line-up featuring Megyn Kelly at 9 p.m. CNN proved largely stable, thanks to some end-of-year lifts — and though it was down, it did not drop as much as MSNBC. Falling behind CNN in the key news demo of adults 25-54, MSNBC wrapped the year down 17 percent from 2013.
It could be worse, of course. Looking all the way down the rankings, upstart news net Al Jazeera America still hasn’t cracked the top 100 networks. It’s actually lost viewers since taking over for Current TV in 2013, and draws an average primetime audience of a scant 7,000 adults 25-54.
On the bright side, there’s nowhere to go but up.