Lifetime, which markets itself as television for women, emerged as the most-watched basic cable network in 2002, while the Fox News Channel recorded the most sizable year-to-year gains among the top cable channels.
Overall, it was a solid year for cable, with four basic networks averaging more than 2 million viewers in prime time, twice as many as during 2001, based on Nielsen Media Research data released Tuesday. A dozen of the top 20 channels improved versus the previous year, reflecting gradual inroads cable has achieved versus broadcast television.
Of course, cable ratings are still relatively low. Taken together, the top five channels wouldn't equal the average audience for the leading over-the-air network.
In addition, cable's budding viewership stems in part from the addition of niche services -- made available via expanded digital capacity on cable and satellite television -- which can steal viewers from established cable channels just as easily as from the major networks.
Nevertheless, the top three networks all saw gains of 10% or more compared to the previous year, with Lifetime delivering 2.3 million viewers in prime time and Nickelodeon and TNT each averaging 2.1 million.
USA also notched a small bump to exceed 2 million, while TBS -- the most-watched network last year -- dipped just below that plateau, leaving the channel in fifth place.
Fox News Channel, paced by "The O'Reilly Factor," grew by more than a third, to an average 1.2 million viewers in prime time, ninth among basic channels. CNN -- receding after a post-Sept. 11 surge in 2001 -- fell 11% for the year, to 900,000 viewers. NBC's cable news channels, MSNBC and CNBC, both struggled, losing more than 25% of their average audience, falling to 360,000 and 250,000 viewers, respectively.
Despite Fox's advantage -- the first time that it has beaten rival CNN in the cable all-news race for the year as a whole -- CNN noted that it still reaches more viewers, with 72 million people watching the AOL Time Warner network over the course of an average month in 2002, compared to 54 million for Fox.
In other words, more people tune in CNN occasionally, with those who watch Fox News doing so more faithfully and for longer periods.
MTV, riding a crest of publicity thanks to "The Osbournes," witnessed a 20% prime-time increase, to just under 1 million viewers.
The Sci-Fi Channel also rose sharply, to an estimated 1.1 million, and ABC Family -- previously the Fox Family Channel until the Walt Disney Co. acquired it last year -- posted a 14% prime-time increase to exceed 1 million as well.
Lesser-seen channels that still significantly improved their ratings in 2002 include FX -- which garnered attention with its original drama "The Shield" -- Court TV and TV Land.
By contrast, A&E;, which underwent a management shake-up, and the Discovery Channel were among the top cable networks to lose audience. AMC -- having recently implemented a format change that involved dropping its "American Movie Classics" designation -- was unchanged, at 770,000 viewers.
Thanks to its strong hold on kids, Nickelodeon remained the most-watched cable network on a total-day basis, with the Cartoon Network finishing third by that measure. In fact, counting the Disney Channel -- which is not advertiser-supported -- three of the top 10 cable channels cater to children.
The data do not include pay cable services, such as HBO and Showtime.