Football carries ESPN to the top

Debut of college season, Favre's return set the stage

The return of college football and Brett Favre's national debut in Minnesota Vikings regalia set the stage for ESPN's ascendancy to the top spot in cable primetime, a position the network is likely to hold through the fourth quarter.

ESPN's "Monday Night Football" exhibition between the Vikings and Houston Texans drew 7.9 million viewers on Aug. 31, making it the network's most-watched preseason NFL contest ever. The game drew 4.03 million adults 25-54, 4 million viewers 18-49 and 1.96 million viewers 18-34, topping all comers in the week.

The NCAA season kicked off last Thursday with a matchup between unranked South Carolina and North Carolina State that drew 3.26 million viewers between 7-10:04 p.m. The Gamecocks' victory outdrew ESPN's 2008 season opener by 38%.

A nine-minute edition of College Gameday Scoreboard drew 3.89 million viewers, leading into the Boise State-Oregon throwdown (3.86 million viewers).

Also boosting ESPN was its Sunday night presentation of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race from Atlanta, which delivered 5.81 million total viewers and 3.18 million 25-54s.

For the week ended Sunday, ESPN drew an average nightly audience of 3.73 million total viewers, per Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings. It also swept the three core TV demos, drawing 1.87 million adults 25-54, 1.8 million in 18-49 and 818,000 in 18-34.

With such original series as "Burn Notice" and "Royal Pains" tucked away until winter, USA Network slipped to second place with 2.77 million viewers. ("Monk" and "Psyche" also were on hiatus, sidestepping the traditionally low TV turnout during Labor Day weekend.)

On the week, USA took second place among adults 25-54 (1.2 million) and viewers 18-49 (1.07 million) while placing third among the 18-34 crowd.

USA's biggest draw last week was its "WWE Raw" showcase, which drew 5.13 million viewers Monday night, 2.46 million of which were members of the 25-54 demo and 2.27 million of which were viewers 18-49.

Third place on the week went to Fox News Channel, which delivered 2.1 million viewers in primetime, including 548,000 adults 25-54. FNC's biggest draw came courtesy of the Sept. 1 edition of "The O'Reilly Factor," which drew 3.44 million viewers in its 8 p.m. slot.

Rounding out the top five ad-supported cable nets were TNT (2.09 million viewers) and Nick at Nite (1.93 million). TNT's "Leverage" scared up 3.58 million viewers Wednesday at 9 p.m.

Tops among the key TV demo after ESPN and USA were TBS (946,000), TNT (848,000), A&E (746,000), FX (678,000), Nick at Nite (643,000), Bravo (620,000), Discovery Channel (602,000) and Syfy (571,000).

While sports accounted for seven of the top 10 programs among viewers 18-49, the remaining three demonstrated a decidedly more female-skewing sensibility. Bravo's "Real Housewives of Atlanta" drew 2.22 million members of the demo Thursday at 10 p.m., while its "Top Chef" averaged 1.97 million the previous night. The third installment of Lifetime's "Project Runway" capped the top 10 with 1.86 million viewers 18-49.