In a cable environment at least as vicious as it's ever been, USA (the channel, not the country) has emerged victorious for another quarter. The network has led the ratings race for almost five straight years.
USA's original programming, particularly Burn Notice, White Collar and Covert Affairs, continues to soundly beat competition from the likes of TNT and FX. Reruns of popular broadcast shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, House and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit help flesh out the numbers along with WWE RAW.
But USA doesn't have all the bragging rights for cable. By far the most popular non-sports show is MTV's Jersey Shore, scoring a whopping 8 million viewers on average for Season 4. (For contrast, American Idol averaged 22 million viewers per episode in 2010, and Two And A Half Men got around 15 million.)
ESPN sits between USA and MTV in overall rankings, but easily won the most-watched single program with the 2011 Bowl Championship Series final - 27 million people tuned in for the college football game. ESPN claimed all ten of the top spots for individual broadcasts, with a mix of sporting events and commentary shows.
USA was technically down in total viewers, but ESPN gained 37% over the same quarter last year. MTV had an impressive 62% new viewership. Other big gainers include The History Channel, FX, Comedy Central, Syfy, Bravo, TV Land and BET. All showed impressive growth - both in overall ratings and demographic-specific numbers. TBS, Spike TV, E! and VH1 all showed losses for Q1. TNT was relatively flat.
Overall, the data tells an obvious story: if you want to dominate cable, you need original programming with mass-market appeal. Burn Notice and Covert Affairs have more in common with broadcast shows like Chuck than more gritty cable fare such as Southland, but even though they're not taking advantage of a less-regulated medium, they bring in the numbers.
MTV skews younger than either USA or ESPN, but they're still following the reality trend they started with The Real World - a trend that's proven massively popular year after year on broadcast TV. Even traditionally sober networks like History or Discovery have picked up on the reality game with Pawn Stars and American Chopper.