ESPN Sweeps January Ratings

ESPN last week plummeted from its perch atop the cable ratings hierarchy, but the network’s dominance in the first 10 days of 2011 ensured a January sweep.

Per a blend of Nielsen live-plus-seven-day and live-plus-same-day ratings data for the period spanning Dec. 27-Jan. 30, ESPN ran away with the prime-time ratings race, averaging 3.94 million total viewers, of which 1.78 million were members of the 25-54 demo. Bristol also took top honors with viewers 18-49 (1.77 million) and viewers 18-34 (855,000).

The addition of the Bowl Championship Series and the BCS national title game were a tremendous boon to ESPN, which saw its nightly deliveries soar 45 percent versus the year-ago period. In a month in which 11 basic-cable networks experienced gains of 10 percent or greater, ESPN showed the most substantial improvement, adding some 1.22 million viewers each night.

Naturally, the turnout for the Jan. 10 NCAA title game had much to do with the staggering ratings increases. The Auburn-Oregon broadcast shattered existing cable records, drawing 27.4 million total viewers, of which nearly half (13.3 million) were representatives of the 18-49 demo. Also drawing a crowd were the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl (20.6 million viewers), the final Monday Night Football broadcast of the 2010-11 campaign (19.2 million) and the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl (13.7 million).

All told, ESPN in January laid claim to each of the top 10 most watched shows on cable and accounted for 13 of the top 20. (MTV’s Jersey Shore claimed four of the remaining seven spots.)

USA Network closed out the month with 2.75 million nightly viewers, down 18 percent from its January 2010 deliveries (3.35 million). The network lost nearly one-quarter of its 18-49 audience (1.07 million, down from 1.38 million) and fell 21 percent among the 25-54 crowd (1.13 million). Along with the allure of ESPN’s college football lineup, USA saw some slippage in its Monday wrestling franchise, WWE Raw. For example, the Jan. 24 installment drew 4.9 million viewers, marking a 14 percent decline versus the analogous telecast on Jan. 24, 2010, which drew 5.7 million viewers.

A year ago, USA also enjoyed stronger performances from original series Burn Notice and off-net strip NCIS. The latter accounted for the network’s largest delivery in January as an episode that aired at 9 p.m. on New Year’s Day drew 5.01 million total viewers.

Non-ad-supported Disney Channel closed out the month ranked third among all basic-cable nets, drawing a nightly crowd of 2.68 million viewers. That marked a 7 percent increase from the prior-year period. The Mouse once again won the core kiddie demos outright, delivering 1.47 million kids 2-11 (up 11 percent), 1.14 million viewers 6-11 (up 11 percent) and 919,000 tweens (up 10 percent).

The night of Jan. 16 gave Disney its biggest push as the final installment of Hannah Montana Forever drew 6.89 million viewers between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. Lead-out Suite Life on Deck boasted 7.77 million total viewers, while Good Luck Charlie served up 7.24 million in its 8:30 p.m. time slot.

TNT declined 5 percent in prime, averaging 2.13 million viewers, a haul that included 971,000 viewers 18-49 (down 2 percent) and, per LSD deliveries, 951,000 adults 25-54 (down 5 percent).

The Turner net scored with its annual presentation of two holiday-themed episodes of The Closer. On Dec. 27, the original series scared up 8.29 million viewers while the following Monday installment delivered 8.22 million.

Rounding out the top five for the month, Fox News Channel saw its prime-time deliveries dwindle by 24 percent to 1.83 million viewers. FNC edged past a surging History by a mere 1,000 viewers. With an average draw of 1.83 million viewers, History saw its January deliveries soar 30 percent. The network also bolstered its share of the core TV demo, drawing 830,000 viewers 18-49 (up 21 percent).

FX was also up in the double digits, averaging 1.65 million total viewers in prime, for a gain of 17 percent. More than half (900,000) of those viewers fell into the 18-49 camp, marking a 13 percent gain from January 2010.

The Jersey Shore juggernaut helped pump up MTV’s deliveries by some 43 percent to 1.49 million viewers. Members of the 18-49 demo were up 42 percent to 948,000 while women 18-34 skyrocketed 50 percent (497,000).

Among the top 40 cable nets, other big gainers on the month were Investigation Discovery, up 63 percent to 606,000 total viewers; Bravo, up 46 percent to 1.06 million; TV Land, up 42 percent to 998,000; BET, up 39 percent to 1.06 million; AMC, up 18 percent to 1.23 million; and MSNBC, up 18 percent to 835,000.

Along with Fox News, the steepest declines were suffered by the likes of CNN, down 21 percent in prime with an average draw of 670,000 total viewers; VH1, down 21 percent to 565,000; Lifetime, down 19 percent to 1.07 million; Nick at Nite, down 14 percent to 1.65 million; Food Network, down 13 percent to 1.14 million; Hallmark Channel, down 12 percent to 915,000; ABC Family, down 11 percent to 1.39 million; Spike TV, down 10 percent to 971,000; E!, down 10 percent to 684,000; and Travel Channel, down 10 percent to 510,000.