USA, ESPN, Fox News Top January Ratings

USA Network walked off with January’s prime-time ratings title, beating all comers with its delivery of total viewers and the core TV demos.

Per Nielsen ratings data for the period spanning Dec. 28, 2009, to Jan. 31, USA averaged 3.27 million viewers in prime, of which 1.45 million were adults 25-54. The cable network also took first among viewers 18-49 (1.34 million) and 18-34 (598,000).

Although the network has enjoyed continuous ratings growth over the course of the last several years, USA did see something of a reversal last month, as its share of adults 25-54 dropped 6 percent versus January 2009. Also on the wane were viewers 18-49, falling 10 percent from the prior-year period.

Thanks to a strong finish by Monday Night Football, a decade-topping Pro Bowl performance and a brace of non-BCS Bowl Games, ESPN nailed down second place last month, averaging 2.72 million viewers. That represents a whopping 49 percent improvement over its January 2009 deliveries (1.83 million).

The sports net also took the silver among the two larger demos, drawing a nightly crowd of 1.25 million adults 25-54 (up 43 percent) and 1.18 million viewers 18-49 (up 38 percent). Bristol claimed third among viewers 18-34 (544,000, up 32 percent), trailing TBS by 18,000 viewers.

ESPN enjoyed the greatest period of growth among any ad-supported cable network, as the hits just kept on coming. The MNF finale between the Vikings and Bears drew 17.1 million football fans on Dec. 28, topping the Jan. 31 NFL Pro Bowl (12.3 million). The last time any network served up a larger Pro Bowl audience was on Feb. 6, 2000, when ABC’s coverage of the annual AFC-NFC exhibition drew 31.2 million viewers.

All told, ESPN accounted for five of cable’s top 10 most watched programs in January, and eight of the top 20.

In the first month of the new year Fox News Channel hit the ground running, averaging 2.42 million viewers in prime, up 21 percent from its January 2009 average. In a particularly active news cycle, FNC’s coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, the special election in Massachusetts and President Obama’s first State of the Union Address helped the network take third placed among ad-supported cable nets.

In prime time, FNC boasted three of the top 10 programs, a list that includes the Jan. 19 installment of Hannity (6.81 million viewers) and the net’s Jan. 27 SOTU analysis (6.62 million).
Among the target demo, FNC continued to dominate the cable news landscape, drawing 640,000 adults 25-54 in prime, a boost of 50 percent from its year-ago 427,000. CNN averaged 259,000, a drop of 39 percent year-over-year, and MSNBC drew 227,000, down 38 percent.

Fourth place went to TNT and its nightly draw of 2.19 million viewers, which marked a 1 percent dip from the year-ago 2.22 million. The Turner net posted its best demo delivery among the 25-54 crowd, averaging a third-place 1.03 million (down 7 percent), while taking fourth place among 18-49s (969,000, down 7 percent).

Nick at Nite locked up fifth place with its average nightly draw of 1.91 million viewers (up 4 percent). January marked the network’s all-time most-watched month among total viewers.

The Nickelodeon offshoot drew the month’s biggest audience for a scripted entertainment telecast, as iCarly scared up 11.2 million viewers on Jan. 18. Lead-out Big Time Rush averaged 6.77 million viewers in the 8:30 p.m. time slot.

Rounding out the month’s top 10 were: A&E, which grew 12 percent in prime with an average draw of 1.8 million viewers; TBS, down 11 percent with 1.69 million viewers and ABC Family, which was up 2 percent to 1.54 million. Tied for ninth place were FX, down 6 percent with 1.39 million viewers and HGTV, up 22 percent. Tenth place went to History, down 6 percent to 1.38 million viewers.

Per Nielsen, 14 of ad-supported cable’s top 40 networks notched double-digit ratings gains in January, while 10 nets suffered declines of 10 percent or more. All told, the top 40 nets accounted for an aggregate 2.7 percent increase in nightly deliveries.

On a percentile basis, the month’s biggest gainer was ESPN. Also making great strides in January was E!, which along the way to posting its most-watched month boosted its prime-time deliveries by 39 percent to 747,000 viewers.

Other gainers were: Food Network (up 28 percent to 1.28 million viewers); WGN America (up 27 percent to 427,000); MTV (up 26 percent to 1.02 million); GSN (up 25 percent to 376,000); Oxygen (up 23 percent to 536,000); ESPN2 (up 19 percent to 618,000); truTV (up 14 percent to 1.32 million); Travel Channel (up 13 percent to 558,000); TLC (up 11 percent to 1.2 million) and Lifetime Movie Network (up 11 percent to 770,000).

As has been the case for the last several months, the news nets lost a good deal of ground in the quarter. CNN fell 34 percent in prime, with 843,000 viewers, while MSNBC dropped 26 percent to 707,000 viewers. Headline News also took a hit, falling 24 percent to 515,000 prime-time viewers.

A number of basic-entertainment nets also saw a downturn in the first weeks of 2010. Hallmark Channel continued to struggle in prime, dropping 30 percent to 1.03 million viewers, while Viacom saw churn at three of its networks. Comedy Central fell 19 percent to 869,000 viewers, while corporate siblings VH1 and TV Land lost 18 percent of their nightly audience, averaging 714,000 and 699,000 viewers, respectively. Meanwhile, Spike TV dropped 14 percent to 1.07 million viewers.

Also reporting double-digit drops were: National Geographic Channel, down 13 percent to 487,000 viewers; and AMC, down 11 percent to 1.01 million.

Tops among the core TV demo were: USA, which drew 1.34 million viewers 18-49, down 10 percent; ESPN (1.18 million, down 9 percent); TBS, down 5 percent with 1.01 million; TNT (969,000, down 7 percent); A&E (887,000, up 12 percent); FX (781,000, down 7 percent); Discovery Channel (673,000, down 4 percent); History (669,000, up 1 percent); truTV (663,000, up 23 percent) and ABC Family (661,000, down 1 percent).

Non-ad-supported Disney Channel took third place among all basic cable nets, averaging 2.49 million viewers in prime, up 14 percent versus the prior-year period, when it drew 2.17 million viewers. The Mouse maintained its hold on the core kiddie demos, averaging 1.02 million viewers 6-11 (up 12 percent) and 829,000 ‘tweens 9-14 (up 10 percent).

Disney’s most significant programming highlight of the month occurred on Friday, Jan. 22, as a one-hour installment of The Wizards of Waverly Place drew 6.22 million viewers in the 8 p.m. time slot. At 9 p.m., The Suite Life on Deck retained 84 percent of its Wizards lead-in, averaging 5.23 million viewers.