Gang-Tackling TV’s Ratings Roster

Be it on broadcast or cable, football is the only game in town

Television is a football-delivery mechanism that occasionally transmits the odd episode of NCIS, so it should come as no surprise that National Football League and college games accounted for the biggest ratings of 2011.

According to Nielsen, NFL programming served up nine of the year’s top 10 largest audiences, while the BCS National Championship Game and Monday Night Football dominated on cable.

With an average draw of 111 million total viewers, Fox’s Feb. 6 coverage of Super Bowl XLV became the single most-watched broadcast of all time. The Packers-Steelers brawl easily outdelivered the previous record holder; CBS’ presentation of Super Bowl XLIV (Saints-Colts) drew 106.5 million viewers, edging the series finale of M*A*S*H by a margin of some 500,000 souls.

Perhaps more importantly, the Super Bowl drew a 39.9 rating among adults 18-49, about five times what American Idol averaged (8.0) as the top-rated program of 2010-11.

Along with the pre- and postgame shows, viewers also flocked to the AFC Championship Game on CBS (54.9 million) and the NFC Championship Game on Fox (51.9 million).

The lone entry on this year’s top 10 list that had nothing to do with the NFL was the 83rd Academy Awards. ABC on Feb. 27 managed to attract 37.9 million viewers, down 9 percent from Oscar’s year-ago 41.7 million.

While the price of entry for the year’s big events was roughly proportionate to their respective deliveries, it would appear that the Super Bowl may have been a better bargain. Fox commanded an average price of $3 million per 30 seconds of airtime in last year’s game, whereas a spot on ABC’s Oscars telecast ran to around $1.7 million.

On the cable front, ESPN enjoyed another banner year, setting an all-time record with the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game. Marking the first time the college football title was decided on basic cable, the Jan. 10 Auburn-Oregon thriller averaged 27.4 million viewers, of which nearly half (13.4 million) were members of the 18-49 set.

By way of comparison, the BCS capper outdelivered Game 7 of Major League Baseball’s World Series (25.4 million) on Fox by 8 percent and beat the UConn-Butler NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship broadcast on CBS (20.1 million) by 36 percent.

All told, ESPN laid claim to 18 of the year’s top 20 cable telecasts, a roster that includes the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 (20.6 million) as well as 13 Monday Night Football contests. With an average draw of 17.2 million viewers, the most-watched MNF game of the current season was Redskins-Cowboys on Sept. 26.

Also packing them in was the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final between Team USA and Japan, which drew 13.5 million viewers on the afternoon of July 17.

ESPN closed out the year ranked third in prime time behind USA Network and the non-ad-supported Disney Channel. Capturing its sixth straight cable ratings win, USA delivered 3.28 million total viewers in prime, up 1 percent versus the prior-year period. The NBCUniversal powerhouse also won out among adults 18-49 (1.25 million, down 2 percent) and adults 25-54 (1.34 million, down 2 percent).

ESPN ranked second in the money demo, averaging 1.07 million adults 18-49, a decline of 5 percent from 1.13 million a year ago.

Per Nielsen, MLB made just one appearance on cable’s top 50, with the distinction going to the fifth and deciding game of the American League Division Series between the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees. TBS averaged 9.74 million viewers on the night of Oct. 6, as the Tigers edged the Bombers 3-2 to advance to the ALCS.

The National Basketball Association was represented by the five-game Eastern Conference Finals on TNT. Game 1 of the Heat-Bulls series delivered the biggest audience for TNT, as Derrick Rose and Chicago crushed LeBron James’ charges 103-82, in a game that was seen by a national TV audience of 11.1 million viewers. It would be the only game of the series that Chicago would win; as the Heat pulled away, the ratings began to slide.

TNT finished fourth on the year, averaging 2.27 million in prime, down 1 percent from last year’s 2.29 million. The Turner net also took third in the 18-49 demo (969,000, down 3 percent).

All told, sports accounted for 35 of the top 50 programs on basic cable this year. Other big draws included the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, which landed 13.5 million viewers on Aug. 28, up from 12.1 million viewers a year ago; the premiere of the Phineas and Ferb Movie on Disney Channel (10.7 million on Aug. 5); and President Obama’s May 1 address to the nation, in which he announced the death of Osama bin Laden. CNN’s coverage of the president’s Sunday night (11:35 p.m.-11:44 p.m. EDT) speech was seen by 10.1 million viewers.

No fewer than 11 episodes of Jersey Shore landed on the VIP list. Along with the Aug. 25 installment, which drew 10.6 million viewers, three other episodes of the MTV reality smash delivered north of eight figures. (Time-shifting boosted Jersey Shore’s deliveries by as much as 25 percent. Originally, the Aug. 25 episode averaged 8.47 million viewers, per Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings estimates.)

The year’s most-watched scripted drama was the Aug. 29 episode of TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles, which captured 9.34 million viewers in its 10 p.m. time slot. The L7 delivery marks a 39 percent improvement over the original LSD rating (6.71 million).

Among scripted series, AMC’s The Walking Dead had no competition in the dollar demo, averaging 6.04 million viewers 18-49 in the course of its sophomore run. The DVR added 1.69 million members of the target audience, an increase of 39 percent from Dead’s LSD numbers.

Second best in the demo derby was FX’s outlaw-biker drama Sons of Anarchy. The series averaged 3.64 million adults 18-49, of which roughly half (1.18 million) were L7 viewers. Thanks in large part to Sons and the new series American Horror Story, FX was one of the biggest growers of 2011, improving its overall deliveries 21 percent to 1.57 million total viewers and upping its share of adults 18-49 by 22 percent to 871,000.

(Interestingly enough, while FX isn’t largely thought of as a female-targeted network, the success of AHS and the network’s slate of crowd-pleasing theatricals helped drive deliveries of women 18-49 up 19 percent to 370,000.)

Fueled by its triumvirate of original series (Pawn Stars, American Pickers, Swamp People), History put together another outstanding year, growing its prime-time audience 21 percent to a fifth-place 1.99 million viewers. The net put up proportionate gains among its two target demos, taking fourth place among viewers 25-54 (981,000) and fifth among the 18-49 crowd (894,000).

Two years ago, History wasn’t a top-10 network.

Other big gainers among cable’s top 40 networks were: MTV, which relied on GTL to finish up 23 percent in prime (772,000 adults 18-49); AMC, which rode The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad to a 10 percent improvement in the big-dollar demos (471,000); and Investigation Discovery, which soared 45 percent with an average nightly turnout of 217,000 adults 18-49.

Also turning things around were: VH1, up 11 percent in the demo to 363,000; Nick Jr., improving 14 percent to 226,000 adults 18-49; and CNN, ahead 31 percent to 180,000. While it just missed posting double-digit gains, Bravo was flush with a 9 percent lift in the demo, averaging 591,000 adults 18-49, while Hallmark Channel improved 8 percent to 171,000.

Seven networks suffered double-digit declines—TBS, Lifetime, Fox News Channel, TV Land, Oxygen, ESPN2 and Lifetime Movie Network. On a percentile basis, FNC got the worst of it, falling 14 percent to 272,000 adults 18-49.

That said, the network handily outdelivered the competition in the core news demo, averaging 423,000 adults 25-54 in prime to MSNBC’s 243,000 and CNN’s 221,000.

Among general-entertainment nets, Oxygen suffered the year’s biggest reversal, falling 13 percent with an average nightly delivery of 213,000 adults 18-49. In a year that saw its overall prime-time deliveries drop 12 percent to 421,000 total viewers, Oxygen also had to contend with a 14 percent decline among women 18-49 (157,000, down from 182,000 in 2010).