Game tackles paradox

Dallas team's popularity helps ESPN garner high numbers

ESPN’s Sunday night NFL package continued its ratings roll last week, as the Cowboys-Patriots contest touched down with basic cable’s largest aud of the year — nearly 12 million — and the best for any football game on cable in eight years.

Thanks to that strong delivery, due in part to the resurgence of the popular Dallas team, the four network carriers of pro football this season are virtually on par with last year’s numbers as the regular season heads into its final six weeks.

But, adding fuel to the fire that something is a bit wonky with Nielsen’s numbers this fall when it comes to men 18-34, it’s interesting to note that while the four-network average of viewers for an NFL game this fall is down 1% year-to-year (14.02 million vs. 14.15 million), the dropoff is a sharp 14% among young males (7.0 rating vs. 8.1).

In other words, the National Football League has managed to maintain its overall audience from year-to-year even though a good-sized chunk of one of its most significant viewing segments has suddenly vanished. Numbers crunchers are left to assume that men outside the key demos are making up the difference.

ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” for example, is holding steady at about 17 million viewers per game this season (off 2% vs. last year), but its men 18-34 rating is down a stupefying 20% (8.0 vs. 10.0).

Fox is averaging 14.93 million viewers and a 7.6 rating in men 18-34 (down 5% and 15% respectively); CBS is averaging 13.72 million and a 6.6 rating in the demo (down 2% and 13%); and ESPN is averaging 9.76 million and an 8.0 demo rating in cable homes (up 7% and 1%).

Over the last two weeks, both CBS and Fox have delivered their largest Sunday audiences of the season.

As for Sunday’s Cowboys-Patriots game on ESPN, its average audience of 11.72 million viewers is the largest for any program on ad-supported cable this calendar year — topping such events as the “MTV Video Music Awards” (10.71m) and the “NBA All-Star Game” on TNT (10.83m).

Among all basic cable programs, contest ranks fifth all-time, behind only the 1992 NAFTA debate on CNN and a trio of NFL games (one on TNT and two on ESPN) in 1994 and 1995.

Game also placed seventh among all programs on television last week in the men 18-49 demo (7.2/18).

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