ESPN, USA Split Ratings Crown

USA Network last week notched a late-December victory, knocking ESPN off its perch atop the cable ratings heap with an average prime-time delivery of 2.97 million viewers.

The NBC Universal network won the week ended Dec. 20, per Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings data, although ESPN was able to hold onto two of the core TV demos.

In the penultimate week of the Nielsen calendar, ESPN maintained its stronghold on adults 25-54 (1.42 million) and viewers 18-49 (1.39 million), although USA made the latter race interesting, averaging 1.38 million members of the demo.

USA also eked out a win among viewers 18-34, drawing 674,000 to ESPN’s 646,000.

Despite an unpromising NFC West matchup between the 6-6 San Francisco 49ers and the 8-4 Arizona Cardinals, ESPN’s Monday Night Football won its 14th consecutive week, drawing 13.1 million viewers on Dec. 14. Through its first 15 MNF contests, ESPN is averaging 14.4 million viewers, up 20 percent from this time a year ago.

The 49ers-Cards scuffle also won the three major demos, drawing 6.74 million viewers 18-49, 6.97 million adults 25-54 and 3.18 million viewers 18-34.

USA got a lift from a special three-hour WWE Raw, averaging 4.92 million viewers Monday night between 8 p.m. and 11:10 p.m. A repeat of NCIS also drew a crowd, as the Dec. 16 installment of the procedural averaged 4.8 million viewers at 8 p.m.

All told, USA took second place among the 25-54 set, averaging 1.34 million on the week.

Rocketing into third place on the week was NFL Network, which smashed its own ratings record Saturday night, as its coverage of the Saints-Cowboys battle drew 10.5 million total viewers. As Dallas handed New Orleans its first loss of the 2009-10 NFL season, the network topped its previous high of 10.1 million viewers (Nov. 27, 2007). That contest also featured the Cowboys, as Tony Romo’s charges topped Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers by a 37-27 margin.

Two nights before the Cowboys burst the Saints’ unbeaten bubble, NFL Net attracted its third-largest crowd, averaging 6.2 million viewers with its coverage of the Dec. 17 Indianapolis Colts-Jacksonville Jaguars contest.

NFL Net last week took the bronze with an average draw of 2.26 million viewers, of which 1.23 million were adults 25-54 and 1.18 million were members of the 18-49 set.

One week after getting bumped out of the top five for the first time since the year began, Fox News Channel stormed back to a fourth-place finish, serving up 2.13 million total viewers. In the core news demo, FNC finished 15th among ad-supported cable nets, with an average nightly draw of 527,000 adults 25-54.

ABC Family fell two spots to number five, drawing 2.06 million viewers, of which nearly half (928,000) were viewers 18-49.

Last week’s top 10 ad-supported cable nets among the core TV demo were: ESPN, averaging 1.39 million viewers 18-49; USA (1.38 million); NFL Net (1.18 million); TBS (1.03 million); ABC Family (928,000); A&E (862,000); FX (787,000); TNT (746,000); Discovery Channel (666,000) and History (589,000).

Along with the three NFL games, programs of interest include: TNT’s special installment of The Closer, which scared up 5.45 million viewers/2.14 million adults 25-54 Monday night, and 10 p.m. lead-out Men of a Certain Age. The second episode of the new Ray Romano strip retained 82 percent of its premiere audience, averaging 4.43 million total viewers. Viewers in the 25-54 demo (2.26 million) made up more than half of Men’s sophomore delivery.

Elsewhere, E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians continued to swell, averaging 4.24 million viewers (up 3 percent from the previous week’s 4.12 million), setting an all-time high for the Comcast network. Episode two of the new season delivered 3.04 million viewers 18-49, good for fourth place on the week.