Here’s How Cable Scored Big in the Fall 2011 Upfronts

The biggest TV networks — ABC (NYSE:DIS), NBC (NASDAQ:CMCSA), CBS (NYSE:CBS), and Fox (NASDAQ:NWSA) — all had record upfronts this month, increasing advertising revenue by 8.1% for the Fall 2011 season despite a general decline in viewership. And now advertisers are spending just as much on advanced advertising sales for cable, with the added interest allowing cable channels to command higher rates. While cable upfronts won’t be complete until the end of the month, inside sources are already saying that the biggest cable channels have already seen rises of 9% to 16% over last year.

Cable’s total volume of ad commitments for the coming season is estimated to have grown 15% from last year, to somewhere between $9.1 and $9.3 billion, roughly the same valuation as the big four broadcast networks’ upfronts. Part of the reason why cable is seeing increased interest from advertisers is simply increased viewership as channels like AMC and TBS (NYSE:TWX) draw away network viewership with similar-style programming, including hour-long dramas and late-night talk shows. During the last TV season, when networks saw a 4% decline in prime-time viewership, prime-time cable viewership increased by more than 4% over the previous season.

Lately cable channels have been setting themselves up in competition with the big networks with popular dramas like AMC’s “Mad Men” (LFG) and teen-centered programming like ABC Family’s (NYSE:DIS) “Pretty Little Liars“, while also gaining viewership from former network stars Conan O’Brien and Oprah, both of whom have recently made the switch to cable (NASDAQ:DISCA). Niche reality shows like A&E’s “Hoarders” and The History Channel’s “Pawn Stars” are also drawing in numbers to rival popular network programming.

So far the cable channels faring best in upfront negotiations are Time Warner’s (NYSE:TWX) TNT and TBS networks, up about 12% or 13% from last year, and Viacom’s (NYSE:VIA) MTV Networks, including Comedy Central, VH1, and MTV, up over 10%. Female-oriented programming is also gaining in popularity, with Bravo, E!, and Oxygen, owned by Comcast’s NBCUniversal, showing increases in advertising rates of 11% to 14%. And coming in at first place in viewership among cable channels was NBCUniversal’s USA Network, which saw ratings increases of 13% to 16% last year with the popularity of new shows like “Covert Affairs” and “White Collar”, averaging over 3 million prime-time viewers a night.