How 2015 Has Been the Biggest Year Ever for Cable Ratings

By Brian Flood 

Even as cord-cutters are on the rise, 2015 will go down as the best year ever for cable ratings. And it’s all thanks to live events. Six of the top 10 most-watched cable telecasts ever occurred in 2015. Yes, six of the Top 10 all time. Thanks to football fans and political junkies ESPN, Fox News and CNN are the big winners.

“This pivotal year has proven that live instantaneous news is a necessity and is more popular than ever before,” FNC and FBN evp Tim Carry told TVNewser.

The inaugural year of the College Football Playoff format was a ratings sensation, with the championship game on Jan. 12 the most-watched program in the history of cable with more than 33.3 million viewers. The two semi-final games and the studio show that followed the title game all crack the top 10. And with this year’s College Football Playoff doubleheader airing December 31, this year could end with eight of the Top 10 cable telecasts ever.

“In time shifted world, live sports rights have only become more valuable,” ESPN’s Amy Phillips told TVNewser. “We have content people want to consume in any environment.”

Fox News Channel’s GOP debate in August drew 24 million viewers, becoming the most-watched non-sports program in cable history. CNN’s first GOP debate in September was not far behind, finishing as the tenth most-watched. (Wednesday’s CNN GOP debate was the third most-watched presidential primary debate ever, averaging 18 million total viewers. An impressive number but one that falls short of the top 10.)

“Fox News Channel is a destination for news events and analysis, during times of crisis and when you want to check the nation’s pulse,” Carry said.

Presidential debates only come around every four years. But live sporting events, which come with hefty rights deals, provide year ’round entertainment. During football season, the NFL-heavy ESPN regularly ranks among the most-watched cable networks.

“The power of live continues to resonate with advertisers,” said ESPN’s Phillips. “From College Football to Monday Night Football to increased interest in WatchESPN inventory, ad sales are strong.”

EMarketer figures 2015 will see a loss of 10.9 percent of U.S. homes paying for TV service, and an additional drop of 12.5 percent in 2016. But networks are trying to stay one step ahead of the cord-cutters, and, just as the broadcast networks are finding out, it all starts with big TV events.

The Top 10 cable shows of all time:

Rank Program Network Date Viewers
1 College Football Championship ESPN Jan. 12, 2015 33,395,000
2 College Football Semifinal ESPN Jan. 1, 2015 28,271,000
3 College Football Semifinal ESPN Jan. 1, 2015 28,164,000
4 Auburn/Oregon ESPN Jan. 10, 2011 27,316,000
5 Notre Dame/Alabama ESPN Jan. 7, 2013 26,380,000
6 Championship Post-Game ESPN Jan. 12, 2015 26,195,000
7 Florida St./Auburn ESPN Jan. 6, 2014 25,572,000
8 LSU/Alabama ESPN Jan. 9, 2012 24,214,000
9 Fox News GOP Debate FNC Aug. 6, 2015 23,997,000
10 CNN GOP Debate CNN Sept. 16, 2015 22,939,000