‘MNF’ scores for ESPN

Cable net makes 'Monday' touchdown

Sports-media experts ragged ESPN without mercy more than a year ago when it agreed to pay a staggering $1.1 billion a year for the rights to “Monday Night Football.”

The ratings are now in for the first October of “MNF” on the cabler, and the record $1.1 billion is beginning to look like a bargain. ESPN ran the table during the month, rocketing by more than 20% in total viewers and in the three key adult demos. In ad-supported cable, it came in first over No. 2 USA by more than a million total primetime viewers on average.

And that’s saying something, because ESPN won last October by huge margins over all of its ad-supported network rivals, buoyed last year by “Sunday Night Football.” (NBC now has the Sunday games.)

While ESPN was chalking up an October to remember, the next seven highest-rated ad-supported networks were down year to year in total viewers, an almost unprecedented run of disappointing numbers.

The declines range from a 1% shortfall at USA to a 29% plunge for Lifetime (in eighth place overall). The commercial-free Disney Channel actually rose by 4% in total viewers to finish second behind ESPN.

“It was pretty quiet on the entertainment front in cable,” said Tim Brooks, exec VP of research for Lifetime. To find the highest-rated scripted show for adults in the Sept. 25-Oct. 29 period, you have to drop all the way down to 25th place, where an original episode of “Nip/Tuck” (Sept. 26) scored 4.28 million total viewers.

In addition to ESPN, several cable networks climbed by double digits in primetime during the October period, led by History Intl. (up 116%; 59th place); G4 (up 89%; 56th place); Biography Channel (up 76%; 51st place); Bravo (up 49%; 27th place); Discovery Science (up 43%; 54th place); and VH1 (up 40%; 19th place).

Other nets didn’t fare so well, dropping by double digits in total primetime viewers in the same period, including Weather Channel (down 41%; 43rd place); Lifetime (down 29%; eighth place); Fox News Channel (down 24%; seventh place); and TV Land (down 20%; 23rd place).

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