BCS games helps ESPN make big jumps

Despite drops in total viewers and key demos compared to the same time frame in 2010, USA Network remained the top cable network in the year’s first quarter.

NBCUniversal cabler’s streak now runs at an impressive 19 straight quarters in which it has drawn the most overall viewers, as well as auds in the 18-49 and 25-54 demos. The top standing showed USA can still be No. 1 even when not everything is in sync. Unlike like last year’s first quarter, net was without original episodes of “Burn Notice” this time around and there was a double-digit drop in viewership for offnet hit “NCIS.”

Thanks to its first-time airing of college football’s BCS games, ESPN was a clear No. 2 in the 18-49 demo. The most-watched program of the year – in total viewers and all three of the top demos – was the championship game in which Auburn defeated Oregon for the national title.

The Jan. 10 game was watched by 27.4 million, about 4 million more than the second place Rose Bowl contest between Wisconsin and TCU. In fact, ESPN was the home for all the top 10 programs. Each program, except for a “Monday Night Football” game between the New Orleans and Atlanta, were all on ESPN and college football related – either a game or studio show.

While ESPN showed a 37% increase in the 18-49 demo, that was dwarfed by MTV’s 62% jump thanks to “Jersey Shore,” “Teen Mom” and “Real World: Las Vegas.” In total viewers, “Jersey Shore” was the top nonsports program. Its Jan. 27 episode drew 10.2 million viewers.

Other top 10 nets in the 18-49 demo that demonstrated impressive growth were History, FX and Comedy Central. History fared well with reality hits “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers,” and successfully launched “Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy.”

FX received tremendous traction from its offnet player “Two and a Half Men” and a handful of bigscreen theatricals, including “Iron Man” and “Step Brothers.” The 20% increase in the demo for FX was all the more impressive considering the lackluster performance of original series “Lights Out.”

Comedy Central, which had its highest-rated first quarter in three years, continues to see “Tosh.0″ perform admirably. Also, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” is the top latenight talk show in cable.

In total viewers, Syfy, Bravo, TV Land and BET all showed double-digit growth. Those same nets, except for Syfy, also had double-digit increases in the 18-49 demo.

Among other entertainment nets, showing losses in the quarter were TBS (which was hurt by the ratings slippage of “Conan”), Spike, Lifetime, VH1 and E! TNT was mostly flat over the three months.

Among the tyke-friendly nets catering to the 2-11 crowd, Disney Channel was best in primetime while Nickelodeon was tops for the entire day. The top show was the Jan. 16 episode of “The Suite Life on Deck,” which drew 3.79 million in the demo.

Among the news cablers, Fox News was best in total viewers in primetime (1.9 million) but lost 17% from a year ago. In the 25-54 demo, which is the gauge the newsies rely on, Fox News was also best but lost 21%. CNN’s total audience was less than half of Fox News in total viewers, but the Atlanta cabler did see a 15% increase. In the demo, CNN rose 35%. In total viewers and 25-54, MSNBC was mostly flat.

HLN, which is about to launch a new show with Dr. Drew Pinsky, had a difficult first quarter. Net was down double digits in all total viewers and significant demos.

Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” was the top cable news program, with 3.1 million tuning in weeknights.

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