October Belongs to ESPN, TBS

Buttressed by stellar Monday Night Football deliveries, ESPN nailed down its second consecutive monthly ratings race. Through Oct. 31, the sports network averaged 3.62 million total viewers in prime time, a 3 percent decline from its year-ago delivery (3.72 million).

Per Nielsen ratings data, ESPN swept the three core TV demos, drawing 1.82 million viewers 18-49 (a decrease of 3 percent versus October 2009), while serving up 1.81 million adults 25-54, down 4 percent from 1.89 million. The net aged down slightly, averaging 895,000 viewers 18-34, a 5 percent improvement from its year-ago number.

ESPN closed out the month on a high note, as the Oct. 25 installment of MNF delivered a hair under 18 million viewers (17.95 million). The Giants-Cowboys telecast now stands as the fourth most-watched program in cable history, trailing three other MNF games: Eagles-Cowboys in September 2008 (18.6 million), Patriots-Saints in December 2009 (21.4 million), and Brett Bowl I, the Packers-Vikings grudge match that scared up an all-time high 21.8 million fans last October.

Through the first seven weeks (eight games), ESPN’s MNF is averaging just under 15 million viewers (14.96 million), flat versus the same time a year ago. That average would be significantly higher if not for an unpromising Oct. 18 Titans-Jaguars match-up that devolved into a 30-3 blowout. The AFC South mugging also went head-to-head with Game 3 of the MLB American League Championship Series on TBS; despite all that, the game still drew an entirely respectable 9.67 million viewers. (Yankees-Rangers averaged 8.21 million that same night.)
 
On the month, MNF accounted for five of the top 10 most-watched programs on basic cable. The Sept. 27 Bears-Packers brawl drew 17.5 million viewers, while Wrangler pitchman/texting enthusiast Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings fell to the New York Jets on Oct. 11 in front of a national TV audience of 17.3 million fans.
 
As was the case a year ago, professional sporting events were the primary ratings driver in October. TBS got on the leader board four times with its coverage of the American League Championship Series, while sibling net TNT secured a spot in the upper echelon with its presentation of the NBA season opener (Miami-Boston).

The six-game Yankees-Rangers series helped steer TBS to a second-place sweep of the demos. The Turner net averaged 1.41 million adults 25-54 on the month, down 7 percent from a year ago, while viewers 18-49 dropped 10 percent to 1.42 million. All told, TBS averaged 3.04 million viewers, marking a decline of 6 percent from its October 2009 delivery (3.23 million).

Capping its fourth season of October baseball, TBS hit its biggest number of the ALCS on Oct. 22. The Rangers’ elimination of the Yankees drew 11.9 million viewers, marking the second-largest audience in the network’s 34-year history of TBS. (The sixth and deciding game of the 2010 ALCS trails only Game 7 of the Rays-Red Sox ALCS of two years ago (13.4 million).
 

Over the course of the ALCS, TBS averaged 8.22 million total viewers, up 36 percent from last season’s NLCS showdown between the Phillies and Dodgers and an improvement of 10 percent versus the seven-game Rays-Red Sox battle in 2008.
 
USA Network took third place, averaging 2.76 million total viewers, a 4 percent dip compared to last October’s 2.88 million. Although the network saw declines in the demos, USA retained third among the two biggies, drawing 1.11 million adults 25-54 (down 12 percent) and 1.02 million viewers 18-49 (down 13 percent from its year-ago 1.17 million).

USA got the biggest lift of the month on Monday, Oct. 4, as its wrestling franchise, WWE Raw, averaged 4.78 million viewers between 9 p.m. and 11:08 p.m.  (The network’s year-ago numbers were boosted by new episodes of Monk, which at the time was halfway through its eighth and final season, and the series premiere of White Collar.)

Fox News Channel held onto fourth place among ad-supported cable nets, drawing a nightly crowd of 2.15 million viewers, flat versus a year ago. Among the core 25-54 news demo, FNC averaged 506,000 viewers, down 10 percent from 560,000.
 
The news net’s overage of the Chilean miner rescue effort served up 7.07 million viewers on Oct. 13, making it the twelfth most-watched program of the last 35 days.

Taking fifth in October prime was Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite, with an average draw of 1.63 million viewers, down 4 percent from 1.7 million. Nick boasted the most-watched scripted program on the month, as a new episode of iCarly drew 6.7 million viewers on Monday, Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. Ten nights later, Nick scared up the second-largest crowd for a scripted effort, as its new film The Boy Who Cried Werewolf averaged 5.82 million viewers.

Rounding out the top 10 were: History, which continued to enjoy huge growth, boosting its overall deliveries 65 percent to 1.61 million viewers; TNT, up 9 percent with 1.6 million viewers; Cartoon Network, up 10 percent (1.47 million); MTV, which skyrocketed 89 percent to finish in the top 10 for the second consecutive month (1.25 million) and A&E, down 14 percent with 1.24 million total viewers.

Per Nielsen, 10 of ad-supported cable’s top 40 networks notched double-digit ratings gains on the month, while 10 nets suffered declines of 10 percent or more. All told, the top 40 nets accounted for an aggregate 3.18 percent decline in nightly deliveries. Twenty-four major networks suffered year-to-year drops of 1 percent or more, while 14 were up and two stayed flat.

While the top 10 was in flux, it was also a mixed bag for cable nets that ranked between No. 11 and No. 40 in prime. On a percentile basis, the biggest gainer of the month was the aforementioned MTV.

Investigation Discovery was next, growing 66 percent with an average delivery of 376,000 total viewers.

After History, other networks making great strides in October were: TV Land, which improved 46 percent to 841,000 viewers; Disney DX, up 34 percent to 346,000 and AMC, which grew 28 percent to 1.09 million. MSNBC and Oxygen both improved 13 percent, as the news network averaged 792,000 total viewers, while its female-targeted NBC Universal sibling drew 425,000. (Oxygen saw even greater momentum in its sales demo, growing its share of women 18-49 by 31 percent to 179,000.) Cartoon Network and E! both hashed out 10 percent games, with the latter net drawing 677,000 viewers per night.
 
While most losses were limited to mid-teen percentage drops, VH1 took the biggest hit last month, plummeting 42 percent to 397,000 viewers, off from 682,000 a year ago. (Worse still, the Viacom net saw 45 percent of its 18-49 deliveries vanish.) Headline News also too a dive, falling 27 percent to 375,000 viewers, while Hallmark Channel continued to face its own ratings struggles, dropping 26 percent in prime with an average draw of 580,000 viewers.
 
Also losing ground were: FX, which fell 17 percent to 1.05 million total viewers; CNN, down 16 percent to 561,000; Syfy, down 15 percent (1.2 million); Discovery Channel, down 15 percent (949,000); the aforementioned A&E (down 14 percent) and Spike TV, down 13 percent with an average delivery of 907,000 total viewers.

Tops among the core TV demo were: ESPN, which drew 1.82 million viewers 18-49, down 3 percent; TBS, with 1.42 million (down 10 percent); USA (1.02 million, down 13 percent); MTV (801,000, up a remarkable 75 percent); History (749,000, up a whopping 77 percent); TNT (702,000, up 13 percent); A&E (617,000, down 3 percent); FX (600,000, down 20 percent); Comedy Central (585,000, down 3 percenty versus a year ago) and Syfy (558,000, down 21 percent).  

Non-ad-supported Disney Channel once again took fourth among all basic cable nets, averaging 2.51 million viewers in prime, down 11 percent versus the prior-year period, when it drew 2.81 million viewers. The Mouse maintained its stranglehold on the core kiddie demos, averaging 11.05 million viewers 6-11 (down 11 percent) and 874,000 ‘tweens 9-14 (down 9 percent).

Disney’s biggest draw of the month occurred on Friday, Oct. 1, as a special one-hour installment of The Wizards of Waverly Place drew 5.53 million viewers.