When Conan O’Brien string-dances on TBS this November, it’ll mark a major victory for cable television, which has long been considered second string to big broadcasters ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. But any way you slice it — reach, revenue, ratings, and (as Team Coco shows) respect — cable is king. Today, with about 90% of Americans now subscribing in some form, basic cable is basically the norm. Revenue is rising, up 14% over the past two years, to $48 billion, compared with a 4% slump for broadcast channels, to $16 billion. “Broadcast television’s audience share has been eaten away,” says Bill Gorman, media analyst and cofounder of TV by the Numbers. “The danger to broadcast TV isn’t the Internet — it’s cable.”
To set themselves apart in an increasingly cluttered cable box, channels often begin by targeting a niche audience and then push into the mainstream with original programming. Which midsize channels will bully their way into the top ranks? And which new networks have staying power? We chart the expanding cable landscape.
Top-Tier Cable Networks
Niche Networks Pursuing Aggressive Growth