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Cable’s Sunday Smackdown: Who’s Up, Who’s Down?

The Killing is dying. Mad Men and Game of Thrones are thriving. And The Big C has taken a big hit since shifting to a new night. Those are some of the snap judgements we reached after taking a look at the latest ratings for Sunday, the night that's home to a disproportionate share of cable's signature series. True, overnight numbers are no longer the last word on how shows are playing in Peoria: You've got your DVR viewership, folks who watch via video on demand or online, and an entire species of viewers who binge view on DVD or Netflix. But overnight ratings are still a good indicator of overall health. So how about a little Nielsen checkup?

As noted above, AMC execs can't be all that happy with how The Killing is performing in its second season. This week's episode averaged 1.3 million viewers overall; in the key demo of viewers under 50, the series drew a mere 428,000 viewers — a series low. Also troubling: Halfway through its sophomore year, The Killing is down 25 percent versus its first season in overall audience.

On the bright side for AMC, none of this seems to be impacting Mad Men one iota. Matthew Weiner's drama is actually having its best season ever with viewers under 50: Eight episodes in, season five is averaging 1.25 million viewers in the key demo, up a whopping 29 percent versus season four. Overall viewership also up double digits, from 2.2 million viewers in season four to 2.8 million so far this season. Zou zou bisou, indeed!

The Mad Men rise comes even as time slot rival Game of Thrones grows mightier on HBO. This Sunday's episode was seen by 3.9 million viewers, continuing a phenomenal growth story which has seen GoT increase its audience more than 50 percent over last year. This week's episode also earned the show's biggest ever under-50 tune-in, with 2.5 million younger viewers worshipping the old gods and the new. As for HBO's young Sunday comedies, both are doing okay. Veep dropped below 1 million viewers for the first time (949,000 if you're counting), but its audience is getting younger: 725,000 of that audience came from the under 50 demo, up 12 percent from the show's second episode. Meanwhile, Girls is shedding older fans: Its overall audience this week was 743,000, the smallest yet; but its under-50 tally was 530,000 viewers, the show's biggest ever, including the premiere. While HBO doesn't sell ads, and therefore gets no premium for younger viewers, there's probably an argument to be made that under-50s are more likely to spread buzz about a show.

Finally, let's check in with Showtime, which this spring chose to shift Nurse Jackie and The Big C from Mondays to Sundays. Five episodes into season four, Jackie is averaging 557,000 viewers in its new time slot — almost identical to its Monday average last summer. The Big C has had a slightly tougher go of things, dropping 17 percent from season two to an average of 479,000 folks who find cancer comical. But here's where those "multiple viewing platforms" come into play: Showtime notes that if you add up all the other ways people watch its shows, the first two eps of Jackie were actually seen by 3.1 million viewers (up 10 percent versus 2011), while Big C upticks to 2.5 million patients (which it vaguely describes as "pretty much on par" with the show's season two average). Perhaps we need to start thinking of TV shows as "Must-See" and "Must-See Eventually."

Photo: AMC/HBO