NFL Playoffs: Networks looking to score

Regular season football boasted ratings records

As the NFL heads into the playoffs this weekend, networks with football packages can only hope the post-season will be 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 audiences continue 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 primetime game in 12 years — aired Sept. 20 when the Peacock televised the New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys contest from the Cowboys’ new stadium. A record 24.8 million watched the matchup won by the Giants. 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 a 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 was averaging 26.2 million viewers, but not for one specific game.

CBS averaged 17.3 million viewers, a 5% increase 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 stay undefeated against the New England Patriots.

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

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