Nielsen ratings for last summer and the regular 2011-2012 season does show a small decline in aggregate viewing of ad-supported cable networks in primetime for both the total viewing (2+) and key 25-54 demographic. Last year's regular season was down 4%, and summer viewing fell 2.4%. Looking deeper, you find that broadcast network viewing was also down for the 2011-2012 season (-3.5%). Some of the decline may be seasonal, or relate to non-recurring factors - such as the Summer Olympics, or weak starts for new programs (The TVB report says that only a few cable networks introduced new program that was performing as well as continuing series).
For the rest of the reports claims of broadcast resurgence - well, there seemed to be some sleight of hand and cherry-picking involved. For example, the claim that
the time-shifted portion of broadcast television’s same-day top 20 fall premieres outpaced the total audience (live + same day) of the majority of cable television’s highest-rated original summer programming.Let's parse that - the claim is that the best of the broadcast network premieres in the Fall, in terms of time-shifted viewing, beat "most" of the same-day viewing of cable's most popular original entertainment programs during the summer. Let's start with what is widely known - Fall primetime audiences tend to be significantly larger than summer primetime audiences; Broadcast network reach and average viewing starts significantly higher than most cable networks (5-10 times higher); time-shifting typically accounts for 10-15% of all TV viewing (as of last season). So that claim can be restated - the best of broadcasts' Fall premieres' time-shifted audiences was larger than many of cable's original series audiences last summer.
If you look at the actual report numbers, it gets more interesting - first, that for those Fall big network premieres (which includes season premiere of continuing series), 20-50% of viewing was time-shifted. Further, the numbers compare the audiences for the single premiere episode of broadcast series with the season (summer) average for cable original series (which often includes multiple reruns). In addition, the report further narrowed the cable network sample to 8 "general interest" cable networks airing original programming, including Discovery and the History Channel. From a research perspective, the two samples really aren't directly comparable, and the only really surprising thing here is the large amount of time-shifting during the Fall premiere week.
Another trumpeted claim in the report was that 94 of the top 100 programs in the first week of Fall. Again, looking deeper, the report lists the top 10 rated programs that week - and seven of those were NFL-related shows (games and coverage). And in fact, ESPN's NFL program outperformed all of the broadcast networks' original entertainment series. To me, though, the most significant finding of that comparison is that - during the heavily promoted Fall premiere week - no program was able to attract even 10% of the potential audience, and no entertainment series could attract as much as 7% of adults (and only two got more than 6%).
So, yes, cable's had an off year - but so have broadcast networks for the most part. Total TV viewing times been relatively static, and online and mobile viewing continues to grow, further eroding the share of broadcast, cable, and pay networks. Still, primetime belongs to broadcast networks for the most part - particularly for sports, and original episodes of many entertainment series and reality shows. It's still newsworthy when a cable program reaches the no longer lofty realm of 5-7 ratings - where the better broadcast primetime programming now resides.
TVB doesn't need to rely on apples/oranges comparisons and cherry-picked results to argue that for the most part, broadcast network programming still dominates in prime time. But it's also clear that cable continues to erode that dominance.
Sources - Cable Primetime Ratings Down Last Season, TVNewsCheck
Seasons of Premiers: Fall Broadcast and Summer Cable, TVB report