Cable Ratings, Auto Dollars to Add Up in 2011

Television is little more than a delivery mechanism for (a) commercials and (b) the National Football League, and while that statement traffics in the hyperbolic, that doesn’t make it any less true. A glance at the ad sales numbers and cable ratings for the year bears this out rather eloquently.  

A strong scatter market and a deluge of automotive dollars have analysts particularly bullish, and many industry observers are predicting a record haul for ad-supported cable in 2011. In a note to investors, Barclays Capital analyst Anthony DiClemente said cable ad spending would hit $19.6 billion this year, up 8.5 percent from 2009 levels, while next year’s take could add up to as much as $21.5 billion (up 9.5 percent).

In the midst of the Great Recession, cable ad sales in 2009 dipped just 2.5 percent, making it the most resilient sector across all media. More recently, ESPN has enjoyed the greatest upsurge in ad sales dollars, soaring 22 percent in the third quarter, thanks to big gains in auto, financial services and telecom business.

Those increases have continued in the present quarter, thanks in no small part to high scatter pricing (25 percent above upfront rates) and ESPN’s stewardship of Monday Night Football. On the year, ESPN boasted nine of the top 10 most-watched programs on basic cable, and 17 of the top 20. Fourteen of the top 20 programs in 2010 were Monday Night Football broadcasts, while the NFL Pro Bowl, the LeBron James dog-and-pony show and an NCAA football game (Boise State-Virginia Tech) accounted for the other three.

On Oct. 25, ESPN boasted the fourth most-watched program in cable history, drawing 18 million viewers with a MNF match-up between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. Three other MNF broadcasts topped the 17 million viewer mark, and three drew more than 9 million members of the crucial 18-49 demo. (The Sept. 27 Packers-Bears showdown actually out-delivered the Cowboys-Eagles game among the demo, drawing 9.45 million 18-49s to the NFC East clash’s 9.4 million.)

Major League Baseball made three appearances on the top 50 list for 2010, with high honors going to the sixth and deciding game of the American League Championship Series between the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers. TBS averaged 11.9 million viewers on the night of Oct. 22, per Nielsen live-plus-seven-day ratings data, besting Game 4 of the series (9.85 million). Game 3 of the Yanks-Rangers set closed out the top 50, averaging 8.23 million viewers.

Three National Basketball Association playoffs landed in the year’s top 50, including ESPN’s coverage of the deciding game of the Cavaliers-Celtics Eastern Conference Semifinals. Boston sent Cleveland packing with a 94-85 win on its home court, in a game that was seen by a national TV audience of 9 million viewers. TNT also got into the action, drawing 8.71 million viewers on May 23 with Game 5 of the Lakers-Suns Western Conference Finals and 8.48 million with Game 3 of that same series.

MSNBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics also commanded a top draw, as the news net’s telecast of the hockey showdown between Team USA and Team Canada averaged 8.29 million viewers on the night of Feb. 21.

All told, sports accounted for exactly half of the top 50 programs on basic cable this year and 21 of the top 30. Other big draws included: an episode of iCarly, which scared up 12.4 million Nickelodeon viewers on Jan. 18; the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, which landed 12.1 million viewers on Sept. 12; and the July 13 installment of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch (9.61 million).

The year’s most-watched scripted drama was the Sept. 6 episode of TNT’s The Closer, which lured 9.38 million viewers in its 9 p.m. time slot. Freshman lead-out Rizzoli & Isles retained 99 percent of The Closer’s audience, drawing 9.3 million total viewers.