ESPN's 'MNF' sets record in cable viewers

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NEW YORK -- The New England Patriots' narrow, last-minute win to remain undefeated pushed ESPN's "Monday Night Football" to a new record in cable viewership.

The Patriots-Baltimore Ravens game averaged 17.5 million viewers, according to data released Wednesday afternoon by Nielsen Media Research. That was a nose higher than the previous record-holder, Disney Channel's "High School Musical 2" that averaged a then-unheard-of 17.2 million viewers on Aug. 17, 2007.

The appeal of the game stemmed from the Patriots now 12-0 record, the first time since the 1970s that an NFL team has gone undefeated, not to mention the fact that the Patriots won 27-24 in the final minutes of the game. The game began at 10.6 million viewers at 8:30 p.m. ET before rising to the 23.9 million viewers at 11:30 p.m. ET.

"To date it's the game of the year in the NFL, an incredibly compelling game from start to finish," said ESPN executive vp John Wildhack. "The Patriots are the headline story in the NFL this year."

ESPN had an inkling that it would be a big game, with ESPN chief George Bodenheimer talking up the Ravens-Patriots game to the investor/analyst crowd at the UBS conference in midtown Manhattan on Monday morning. But another Patriots last-minute win was the icing on the cake.

"Not only did it live up to that potential, it exceeded it," Wildhack said.

It's the also the second highest-rated telecast in cable behind the Perot-Gore NAFTA debate on CNN in 1993. It brought ESPN to victory against everyone else in cable and broadcast on Monday night in viewers and the male and adult demos.

Meanwhile, ESPN's viewership is down slightly with "Monday Night Football" season-to-date. But Wildhack said that ESPN doesn't just look at the linear channel TV ratings.

"It's not the metric we sell against," he said. "Our proposition, as you know, is a multiplatform approach and the vast majority of our deals are multiplatform." ESPN tries to make every "MNF" game an event, with radio, online and its TV channels involved from Monday morning through Tuesday.

The Patriots' win streak has so far meant good holiday tidings to NBC in "Sunday Night Football" as well as ESPN. Next weekend, the Patriots will play the Pittsburgh Steelers to keep the streak alive.
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