Networks feast on football

Just-concluded regular season hit record numbers

As the NFL heads into the playoffs this weekend, networks with football packages are hoping the postseason will prove as profitable as the just-concluded regular season.

When the final ratings are recorded, NBC, Fox, CBS, ESPN and NFL Network will all have hit record numbers as auds continue to feed their insatiable appetite for pro football.

NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” package averaged 19.4 million viewers and finished as fall’s No. 1 primetime program for both total viewers and in the 18-49 demo. Total viewers were up 17% from 2008.

The most-watched game of the season — and highest-rated primetime contest in 12 years — was Sept. 20’s New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game, from the Cowboys’ new stadium, on NBC. A record 24.8 million watched the matchup. Also ranking high for NBC was the New England Patriots-Indianapolis Colts game on Nov. 15 that drew 22.4 million.

Fox averaged 19.1 million viewers per game, upping the record set in 1995 by nearly 1 million viewers and besting last year by more than 2 million. For the second game of its Sunday afternoon doubleheader (games starting at 4:15 p.m. ET), Fox averaged 26.2 million viewers.

CBS averaged 17.3 million viewers, up 5% from 2008 and the highest total for CBS since the network returned to covering pro football in 1998. Net, which owns rights to the AFC, doesn’t have its week 17 numbers in yet.

On the cable side, ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” delivered the highest audience since the net picked up the franchise in 2006. The games averaged more than 14 million viewers each week, a 20% spike from a year ago.

Two games passed the 20 million mark for ESPN: When Minnesota Viking quarterback Brett Favre faced his former team, the Green Bay Packers, on Oct. 5, 21.8 million tuned in. Later in the season, 21.4 million watched the New Orleans Saints remain undefeated against the New England Patriots.

Even NFL Network, which doesn’t have near the distribution model of the other nets that air football, was up 49% for the season as its Thursday night package averaged 5.5 million per game.

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