ESPN on track to win October

Sports net averaged 3.73 million in total viewers

Buttressed by strong "Monday Night Football" deliveries, ESPN is on track to win its second straight monthly ratings race. Through Oct. 25, the sports network averaged 3.73 million total viewers in prime time, a 28% improvement over its year-ago delivery (2.92 million).

Per Nielsen ratings data, ESPN swept the three core TV demos, drawing 1.9 million adults 25-54 (an increase of 31% versus October 2008), while serving up 1.88 million viewers 18-49, up 28% from 1.47 million. The net also drew 855,000 viewers 18-34, a 21% lift from 703,000.

ESPN started the month on a tear, as the Oct. 5 installment of "MNF" set the record as the most-watched telecast in cable TV history, drawing 21.9 million total viewers. Wrangler
shill/Vikings QB Brett Favre led the Minnesota Vikings to a 30-23 victory over the Green Bay Packers, establishing bragging rights over the NFC North and knocking off the previous record of 18.6 million viewers, set by ESPN on Sept. 15, 2008 (Eagles-Cowboys).

Through the first six weeks of the 2009-10 NFL season, ESPN's "MNF" coverage is averaging 15 million total viewers.

ESPN also drew big numbers with the Sept. 28 "MNF" telecast, a Cowboys-Panthers tilt that delivered 15.7 million viewers. On Oct. 19, the Chargers and Broncos AFC West grudge match drew 13.5 million viewers, while Jets-Dolphins delivered 13.1 million viewers on the night of the 12th.

Bristol held off a charge by TBS, which hosted its third season of postseason baseball. The Turner net's slate of 18 MLB playoff games averaged 5.15 million viewers, down 4% from the 5.38 million viewers it drew a year ago, when it carried 22 postseason games.

All told, TBS averaged 3.24 million viewers in prime, a drop of 11% from the 3.64 million it drew in October 2008. TBS took second among the three demos, averaging 1.58 million viewers 18-49 (down 10%), 1.52 million adults 25-54 (down 13%) and 787,000 viewers 18-34 (off 5%).

On the month, TBS accounted for six of the top 10 most-watched programs on ad-supported cable, setting its high-water mark with Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. On Oct. 21, the Phillies advanced to the World Series with a 10-4 win over the Dodgers, in a Wednesday night clincher that was seen by a TBS audience of 8 million viewers.

USA Network took third place, averaging 2.93 million total viewers, a 3% uptick from last October's 2.83 million. Although the network saw declines in the demos, USA took third across the board, drawing 1.29 million adults 25-54 (down 4%), 1.19 million viewers 18-49 (down 13% from its year-ago 1.38 million) and 541,000 18-34s, a drop of 15%.

USA got the biggest lift of the month on Friday, Oct. 23, as a new episode of "Monk" drew 5.42 million viewers before leading into the series premiere of "White Collar" (5.4 million). In a remarkable show of retention, "White Collar" held onto 99.6% of its 9 p.m. lead-in.

Fox News Channel grabbed fourth place, drawing a nightly crowd of 2.16 million viewers, of which 563,000 were members of the 25-54 demo. While FNC dropped 36% in both areas, its 2008 numbers were inflated by the race for the White House.

In a head-to-head comparison with the most recent non-election year, FNC actually grew 55% versus October 2007, when it averaged 1.4 million total viewers. In the core news demo, Fox News grew 66% versus the same period two years ago, when it averaged 340,000 adults 25-54.

Taking fifth in October prime was Nick at Nite, with 1.71 million viewers, down 3% from 1.75 million.

Rounding out the top 10 were: TNT, which fell 11% in prime with an average draw of 1.48 million viewers; A&E, up 10% with 1.5 million viewers; Syfy, up 1% (1.45 million); Cartoon Network, which fell 19% (1.36 million) and FX, up 11% with 1.3 million total viewers.

Per Nielsen, 11 of ad-supported cable's top 40 networks notched double-digit ratings gains in the quarter, while a dozen nets suffered declines of 10% or more. All told, the top 40 nets accounted for an aggregate 3.4% decline in nightly deliveries.

While the top 10 was relatively stable, with only ESPN, A&E and FX growing by 10% or more, it was a mixed bag for cable nets that ranked between No. 11 and No. 40 in prime. The biggest gainer of the month was Food Network, which was up 32% in total viewers, averaging 1.13 million viewers.

Also making great strides in October was Food sibling HGTV, which improved 17% to 1.16 million viewers.

On a%ile basis, other gainers were: ESPN2 (up 29% to 780,000); CMT (up 27% to 436,000); BET (up 18% to 751,000); truTV (up 15% to 1.06 million) and Travel Channel, which saw its nightly deliveries increase 11% to 477,000. E! and TLC also saw substantial gains, as each grew 9%.

Not surprisingly, the nets that lost the most ground in the quarter were news outlets. CNN fell 69% with 665,000 viewers, while MSNBC dropped 56% to 702,000 viewers. When compared to October 2007 deliveries, CNN was down 6% from 711,000 viewers, while MSNBC grew 44% from 489,000. Much the same holds true for the demo, as MSNBC served up 235,000 adults 25-54 (up 18% from 199,000 in October '07), besting CNN's 187,000 (down 24% from 246,000 two years ago).

A handful of basic entertainment nets also took a hit. Hallmark Channel continued to struggle, dropping 38% to 782,000 viewers, while Lifetime fell 25% to 1.05 million viewers. Viacom nets MTV and Comedy Central suffered setbacks, as the flagship net fell 16% in October (689,000) while its sibling dropped 14% to 992,000.

Tops among the core TV demo were: ESPN, which drew 1.88 million viewers 18-49, up 28%; TBS, with 1.58 million (down 10%); USA (1.19 million, down 13%); FX (770,000, up 10%); Syfy (733,000, up 4%); A&E (651,000, off 1%); TNT (629,000, down 19%); Comedy Central (617,000, down 11%); Spike TV (615,000, flat versus a year ago) and Discovery Channel (592,000, down 5%).

Non-ad-supported Disney Channel took fourth among all basic cable nets, averaging 2.84 million viewers in prime, up 8% versus the prior-year period, when it drew 2.63 million viewers. The Mouse maintained its hold on the core kiddie demos, averaging 1.17 million viewers 6-11 (up 6%) and 949,000 'tweens 9-14 (down 2%).

Disney's most significant programming highlight of the quarter occurred on Oct. 2, as a one-hour Suite Life on Deck drew 7.62 million viewers.