College football finale big for ESPN

Auburn-Oregon most-watched cable telecast of all-time

When a big football game is on these days, the competition may be best advised to punt.

ESPN set a cable viewership record with Monday’s college championship game — and that came on the heels of the weekend’s most-watched opening-round NFL playoff games ever.

NBC won the week of Jan. 3-9, as the Peacock benefited most from primetime pigskin. The net, whose “Sunday Night Football” is the season’s No. 1 program, has won four of the last five weeks in adults 18-49 but must now make do without football and, as a result, doesn’t expect to win any more frames this season.

Kicking off the current week, ESPN’s coverage of college football’s Bowl Championship Series title game between Auburn and Oregon averaged a 10.1 rating/25 share in adults 18-49 and 27.32 million viewers overall, according to in-home viewing estimates by Nielsen. That makes it the most-watched cable telecast of all time — surging past the previous record of 21.84 million for a Green Bay-Minnesota game on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” in October 2009.

This year’s championship game viewership lagged last year’s matchup between traditional football powers Alabama and Texas (30.78 million on ABC) but still outrates eight of the past 12 BCS title games. And in men 18-34, this year’s 13.5 rating tops 11 of the past 12 years.

The four BCS games on ESPN prior to the title game averaged 13.8 million viewers overall and a 4.5 rating in adults 18-49 — down 14% and 12% respectively vs. last year; these dropoffs aren’t surprising since nearly 10% of the country is no longer able to watch at home as the big games moved from broadcast to cable for the first time. Tuesday’s Sugar Bowl between Ohio State and Arkansas rated highest among these (5.0/16, 13.64m).

As college football was wrapping its season, the pro game kicked off its playoffs Saturday with monster ratings.

The four NFL games over the weekend averaged 32.3 million viewers, up 7% from last year’s 29.9 million and topping the previous all-time high of 30 million in 1994.

Sunday’s late-afternoon Green Bay Packers-Philadelphia Eagles game on Fox was the most-watched wild-card contest ever with 39.3 million viewers — the largest audience for any telecast since the Academy Awards on ABC last March. Game peaked with more than 44 million viewers in the opening hour of primetime, helping significantly boost Fox’s animated laffer lineup.

Saturday night’s New York Jets-Indianapolis Colts game on NBC drew 33.4 million viewers, setting records as the most-watched primetime wild-card game (they started in 2002) and the most-watched Saturday game. The day’s opening wild-card game on NBC, in which the Seattle Seahawks scored a major upset over the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, averaged 28.4 million viewers, while Sunday’s early game on CBS (Baltimore Ravens-Kansas City Chiefs) drew 28.5 million.

Overall in primetime for the week of Jan. 3-9, NBC led in adults 18-49 with a 3.2 rating/9 share — the highest “live plus same-day” weekly average since Fox earned a 3.7 with four World Series games in late October. The net was followed by Fox (2.8/8), football-free ABC and CBS (both 2.3/6), ESPN (1.5/4) and Univision (1.2/3).

NBC also prevailed in adults 25-54 (3.4/9 to 2.4/6 for runner-up CBS), but CBS still narrowly led in total viewers (9.7 million to 9.6 million).

Notable among entertainment series last week was strong sampling on Sunday for Fox’s “Bob’s Burgers” (4.5/11 in 18-49, 9.38m). The Eagles-Packers NFL game led into season highs for “The Simpsons” (5.7/14, 12.55m), which in turn helped the new animated comedy; it will be tough for “Burgers” to approach its premiere rating this week, as Fox’s football game is earlier in the day and “Simpsons” won’t be nearly as potent itself.

Also Sunday, NBC’s two-hour preview of drama “The Cape” did OK (2.6/7 in 18-49, 8.45m) in advance of its regular-slot firstrun debut next Monday.

Not so hot was the Paula Abdul-hosted CBS series “Live to Dance,” which opened modestly with its special preview Tuesday (2.4/6, 10.22m) and then fell off in its regular Wednesday 8 o’clock slot (1.8/5, 7.65m), where it will air until “Survivor” returns Feb. 16.

Outside of Fox’s animated duo of “Simpsons” and “Family Guy” (4.7/11, 9.33m), top scores among shows back with their first original episodes of the year came from ABC’s “Modern Family” (4.8/13, 11.83m) and CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” (4.7/12, 15.36m). “Men” was the week’s No. 1 scripted program in adults 25-54 (6.2/14) and total viewers.

CW had a quiet week, with all of its shows still in repeat. But the net had reason to be pleased with final cume numbers from Nielsen for its mid-December marathon of top show “The Vampire Diaries.” The drama attracted 3.9 million new viewers with its 10 episodes spread out over five nights — additional exposure that could help the soph skein as it does battle on a regular basis for the first time with Fox’s “American Idol.”

In cable, MTV’s “Jersey Shore” (4.2/12 in 18-49, 8.45m) was back in a big way Thursday, setting network records for a series telecast and drawing the best 12-34 rating (6.9) for any entertainment telecast on any network (broadcast or cable) this season.

Monday saw good showings for Lifetime’s “The Craigslist Killer” (2.2/5 in 18-49, 5.39m) — the top original ad-supported cable movie in adults 25-54 in more than two years — and ABC Family’s winter premiere of “Pretty Little Liars,” which hit series highs (1.5/4, 4.22m) and is among the net’s top five telecasts ever among persons 12-34. Also, TNT’s “The Closer” wrapped its season (1.1/3, 6.63m), ruling as cable’s most-watched scripted program of the week.

Also noteworthy, Discovery’s “Gold Rush: Alaska” drew big numbers on Friday (1.5/5 in 18-49, 3.71m), standing as the night’s top nonsports program — broadcast or cable — among men 18-49 (2.0/6) and 25-54 (2.4/6).

And in its first full week, Oprah Winfrey’s OWN ranked 41st in primetime among cable networks in both adults 18-49 (138,000) and total viewers (387,000) — up roughly 50% from the opening week of 2010, when it was the former Discovery Health Network.

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