NEW YORK -- For the first time since the cable industry began its rapid growth more than a decade ago, the broadcast networks have been able to regain a piece of the audience they lost.
While it is too soon to declare that broadcasting has finally bottomed out, many network executives hope the latest ratings are a sign that the networks may not irresistibly lose viewers to cable channels.
The networks had help luring viewers back in February. CBS posted a big victory in the ratings because of its Winter Olympics coverage. Fox Broadcasting Co. posted its best monthly ratings ever. And cable suffered in the year-to-year comparison because of the absence of its most exciting programming yet: a war.
But even without the Persian Gulf War and Olympics factors, the turnaround was noticeable. Cable industry figures show that cable audiences would have been off by about 6 percent, compared with a decline of 15 percent with the war and Olympics figures included.
Never before has cable lost audience on a year-to-year basis in the 11 years that A.C. Nielsen Co. has regularly measured the industry with the broadcast networks.
Several network executives cited this as a signal that their business was moving up instead of down.
"Cable isn't growing automatically anymore," said David F. Poltrack, the senior vice president of research for CBS. "So it becomes more a question of programming against programming."
Bob Sieber, vice president of research for Turner Broadcasting System Inc., said the networks were grossly overstating the ratings results from February.
The ratings change comes as the broadcast networks and the cable industry are in periods of transition.
Meanwhile, the cable industry is finding that its days of automatic growth are over. For example, CBS concluded the February ratings period with the biggest margin of victory over its competition that any network has recorded during a sweeps month -- those ratings periods of the television season that set advertising rates.
At the same time, CBS' broadcast rivals, NBC, ABC and Fox, saw their ratings increase from last year.
Cable dropped to 10.2, from a 12 rating in 1991. Each point represents 921,000 homes.