The return of college football and Brett Favre’s national debut in Vikings regalia set the stage for ESPN’s ascendancy to the top spot in cable prime time, a position the sports network is likely to hold throughout the fourth quarter.
ESPN’s Monday Night Football exhibition between the Vikings and the Houston Texans drew 7.92 million viewers on August 31, making it the sports net’s most-watched pre-season NFL contest ever. Notable for Favre’s cheap crackback block on Houston safety Eugene Wilson and a 75-yard TD run by Vikes’ running back Adrian Peterson, the warm-up match drew 4.03 million adults 25-54, 4 million viewers 18-49 and 1.96 million viewers 18-34, topping all comers on the week.
The NCAA season kicked off Thursday, Sept. 3, with a matchup between unranked South Carolina and N.C. State, which drew 3.26 million viewers between 7 p.m. and 10:04 p.m. The Gamecocks’ sloppy 7-3 victory outdrew ESPN’s 2008 season opener by 38 percent.
A nine-minute edition of College Gameday Scoreboard drew 3.89 million viewers, leading into the Boise St.-Oregon throwdown (3.86 million viewers).
Also boosting ESPN was its Sunday night presentation of the Nascar Sprint Cup race from Atlanta Motor Speedway, which delivered 5.81 million total viewers and 3.18 million 25-54s.
For the week ended Sept. 6, ESPN drew an average nightly audience of 3.73 million total viewers, per Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings. The network also swept the three core TV demos, drawing 1.87 million adults 25-54, 1.8 million viewers 18-49 and 818,000 18-34s.
With original series like Burn Notice and Royal Pains tucked away until next winter, USA Network slipped to second place with 2.77 million viewers. (Monk and Psyche were also 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 were viewers 18-49.
Third place on the week went to Fox News Channel, which delivered 2.1 million viewers in prime, 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. time 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 night at 9 p.m.
Tops among the key TV demo were: ESPN, which drew 1.8 million viewers 18-49; USA (1.07 million); 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 programming 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 night at 10 p.m., while its Top Chef averaged 1.97 million on the previous night. The third installment of Lifetime’s Project Runway capped the top 10 with 1.86 million viewers 18-49.