BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last month and for the first time ever, cable TV drew more viewers than network TV in prime time. Cable networks registered a 54 prime time share for June -- about 31 million homes - as opposed to a paltry 38 share and 22 million homes for the 7 major broadcast networks. The biggest cable winners were TNT, followed by USA and Lifetime. Here to put all those letters and numbers into context is our old friend Max Robins who writes The Robins Report for TV Guide. Welcome back, Max.
MAX ROBINS: Hey, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So-- does this mean that cable has finally conquered broadcast TV or are these numbers misleading?
MAX ROBINS: No, these numbers aren't misleading at all. Cable for some time has really been chipping away at that major broadcast network share of the audience, and this is indeed a watershed number!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it is a tribute also to narrow-casting because you're talking, what, about 60-some cable stations versus 7 networks.
MAX ROBINS:Absolutely. However what's interesting to note is there are a number of shows on cable who have ratings now that are approaching broadcast levels!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And this is pretty new -- that the highest rated cable show is now approaching or even surpassing the ratings for the lowest-rated network shows.
MAX ROBINS: It really is unusual that for example you have a show like The Osbournes on MTV that does numbers pretty close to what some networks would be [LAUGHS] happy with quite frankly. Other shows like on FX -- The Shield; there's an original Steven King series on USA that's doing quite well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do people find out about these programs?
MAX ROBINS:Some of these cable networks are owned by these major media companies that can market them across platforms. A company like Viacom which controls the M-- all the MTV networks --MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1, The National Network --they can advertise that on these radio networks they control. They're getting quite effective at getting the word out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:What about word of mouth? Is it more important for cable than it is for networks? Is "viral marketing" at work here as they call it?
MAX ROBINS: Viral marketing is crucial. Shows that just get kind of a watercooler buzz going. I mean in a sense that was what happened with The Osbournes. MTV didn't know they had lightening in a bottle with that. The other thing too is you're dealing now with an audience that we talk about that demographic that is so attractive to Madison Avenue - 18 to 34 year olds. Most people in that group, they're very comfortable with cable. They don't have the same kind of viewer loyalty maybe that an older demographic once did to the broadcast networks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What kind of impact do these ratings figures have, since as you say, the biggest numbers for TV shows are still in network TV?
MAX ROBINS:It's having an impact. For cable as a whole in selling itself it's worth its value to advertisers saying you've got to pay the same kind of premium you - for our audience that you do for the broadcast networks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How have the networks responded to this gradual erosion of its audience to cable?
MAX ROBINS:In one sense it's almost this kind of if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. If you look at the broadcast networks this summer, they're looking a whole lot like cable television! You watch ABC and think you're watching The Discovery Channel! I mean one of the big breakout hits of the summer on Fox, American Pop Idol. It looks like an MTV Show! A lot of these shows are drawing a young, a young [LAUGHS] audience who's been weaned on this stuff on cable!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So do you think this trend is going to continue -- as cable channels proliferate they'll just drain more and more audience from the 7 networks?
MAX ROBINS: Absolutely. There's no stopping this. There will be the occasional breakout hit that the networks have, but cable will continue to chip away at the broadcast network audience, and it's going to be harder and harder for broadcast networks to deliver that blockbuster. And what's going to happen is for mass marketers, because there'll be fewer and fewer shows that do deliver that huge audience, those shows that do will become increasingly valuable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The ER phenomenon.
MAX ROBINS: The ER, Friends phenomenon. Absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I've been reading that the USA Network is launching a new show starring Tony Shaloub called Monk and that they're hoping it'll be their Sopranos. They're looking to another cable channel for their model of success; not to networks.
MAX ROBINS: You mention the Sopranos. HBO in that 9 o'clock time slot on Sunday night has become a real factor that the networks take into account! A lot of the producers of big dramas, they don't want to be on at 9 o'clock where they're going to be up against a Sopranos or a Six Feet Under.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Maybe Six Feet Under is an appropriate place to end this interview.
MAX ROBINS: Don't bury the broadcast networks [LAUGHTER] yet, Brooke, but their business certainly has changed and cable's going to keep chipping away at what they do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Max, thanks a lot.
MAX ROBINS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Max Robins writes The Robins Report for TV Guide.