MSNBC Skates to Big Night with USA-Canada Stunner

Despite being relegated to a cable-news network, Sunday night’s USA-Canada tilt drew a huge crowd, as some 8.22 million viewers tuned in to witness what some are calling the biggest hockey upset since 1980’s Miracle on Ice.

NBC Universal elected to carry the USA-Canada contest on MSNBC, allowing it to run the entire game without having to break away from the action. Such would not have been the case if the preliminary-round showdown had aired on the broadcast network.

In place of the hockey game, NBC aired a prime-time slate that included ice dancing and speed skating.

MSNBC’s Sunday night delivery marked the network’s largest sustained audience since it launched in 1996. On Nov. 4, 2008, MSNBC drew 8.23 million viewers with its coverage of Sen. John McCain’s 10-minute presidential election concession speech, which aired from 11:19 p.m. to 11:29 p.m. EST.

Per SNL Kagan estimates, MSNBC reaches approximately 93.1 million households. While moving USA-Canada to the cable network put the game out of reach of some 23 million TV homes, MSNBC’s standard-definition feed was perhaps the greater bone of contention. The news net’s HD simulcast is available in some 11 million homes, or about one-tenth of its overall footprint.

While hockey partisans may continue to grouse about NBCU’s choice of platforms, MSNBC did beat out NBC on one specific score. Team USA’s 5-3 victory over Canada out-delivered NBC’s coverage of Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals by some 720,000 viewers. The June 12 Penguins-Red Wings capper drew 7.55 million viewers, and was the most-watched NHL contest on any network since Game 6 of the 1973 Stanley Cup Finals.

Through the first 10 nights of Winter Olympics coverage, NBC is averaging 26 million viewers in prime, up 27 percent from its coverage of the Torino Games.