Chalk one up for SpongeBob.
Nickelodeon, home of the top-rated kids' show "SpongeBob SquarePants," has pulled off an unusual maneuver that probably will reshuffle the cable network ratings and hurt rivals such as Lifetime, USA Network and TNT.
For years, Nickelodeon, which reaches more than 85 million U.S. cable subscribers, has been considered a single network in the ratings, even though its programming is divided between daytime kids' shows and "Nick at Nite," a block of sitcom repeats airing between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
But starting next week, Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite will generate ratings as two entirely separate networks, even though they share the same channel on cable systems.
The switch by MTV Networks, the Viacom Inc. unit that owns Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite, means that, at least in certain instances, Viacom is likely to get two highly rated networks out of one. Nick at Nite will suddenly bump rivals like Lifetime and TNT from long-held top spots in the ratings from Nielsen Media Research.
That has competitors crying foul, labeling the move a "blatant" and unfair ploy.
The switch could boost Viacom's bottom line because a top ranking often leads to increased ad sales.
For the first quarter of 2004, Nickelodeon is the most-watched cable network for the entire day, while Turner Broadcasting System's TNT is No. 2. Once the change is instituted, according to Viacom projections, Nickelodeon will stay at No. 1, Nick at Nite will take second place and TNT will drop to third.
Similarly, Lifetime is currently ranked No. 1 in the key demographic of women aged 18 to 49, with TNT ranked second. Once the change is instituted, Nick at Nite will rank first in the category, with Lifetime second and TNT third.
Viacom officials note that Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite already have separate programming and advertising sales staffs. They requested the change, they say, simply to help advertisers better understand the ratings for Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite.
Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said the research firm approved the change because Viacom sells Nick at Nite ads separately.
"It's how they're selling" the network, he said. "That's the deciding factor."
In the past, companies wishing to buy ad time during Nick at Nite had to make their own calculations that subtracted an estimate for the kids' programming elsewhere on the schedule
"We did [it] to make it easier for our clients to look at Nick at Nite as a separate network," said Betsy Frank, executive vice president of research at MTV Networks.
Rivals complain that Viacom is unfairly comparing Nick at Nite, with its nine hours of programming each evening, to networks such as TNT, which are on the air 24 hours a day. Far from simplifying matters, they say, Viacom actually is making cable ratings so complicated as to be almost meaningless.
Attempts to manipulate the ratings are nothing new, but they usually are "not as blatant as this," said Tim Brooks, executive vice president of research at Lifetime, which is owned by Hearst Corp. and Walt Disney Co.
Some network executives are angry with Nielsen for approving the change. Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer at Turner Broadcasting System, said Nielsen wasn't equipped to make the switch and might not be able to provide full data on the two networks initially.
"It's not fair for others to be able to get information on me I cannot get on them," Wakshlag said.
Some ad experts hailed the change.
"Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite are technically the same channel but essentially two completely different operations with different management, different programming, different target audiences and different advertising groups that buy them," said Steve Sternberg, executive vice president at ad firm Magna Global.
Cable analyst Jack Myers said he could understand that competitive networks might perceive the ratings split as being disingenuous, "but it's actually much more consistent with the way business is being conducted. Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite are two very different audiences. They program very differently, and advertisers don't buy Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite in tandem."
Times staff writer Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this report.