ESPN Made Plays in October

11/02/2003 7:00 PM Eastern

ESPN's win in the October primetime ratings couldn't be any timelier for the sports programmer, as it provides potential ammunition for its very nasty public battle with Cox Communications Inc. over license-fee increases.

Jet-powered by football and Major League Baseball's Division Series games, ESPN scored big and snatched the No. 1 trophy in the October primetime ratings. The total sports network posted a 2.4, up 41% from last October, according to Nielsen Media Research data released by the ABC Cable Networks Group last week.

In fact, in October more viewers watched ESPN and its younger sibling ESPN2 than in any month in either network's history.

Best Ever?

"In many ways, October was the best month we've ever had as a network," said Glenn Enoch, ESPN's vice president of audience research.

Ad-supported cable in general was also a big winner in October. Facing formidable competition — namely broadcast's new fall-season shows and the baseball playoffs and World Series — cable still scored its best-ever October primetime viewership, tying with the Big Four broadcasters, according to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau.

Cable registered an average primetime delivery of 30.8 million homes. It was up 6.2%, compared with last year, and tied with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox's 30.8 million, which was a 1% dip for broadcasters, according to a CAB analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

In October, cable stacked up a 28.4 rating, a 4.4% gain, and registered a 46.2 share, up 4.1%, the CAB said. The Big Four tallied that same 28.4 rating, down 2.6%, and a 46.5 share, a drop of 2.7%.

"What's happening is the difference between broadcast and cable in the beginning of the season is shrinking," said Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting System Inc. "If we tied in October, it will be interesting to see what happens in November, and how close broadcast and cable are."

Disney's No. 2

In the primetime ratings race among individual networks, ESPN was followed by its fellow The Walt Disney Co. sibling, Disney Channel, which was in second place with a 1.9.

The kids' network enjoyed a sizable jump, 36%, in its numbers from last October. Turner Network Television and Nickelodeon tied for third place in primetime with a 1.8 rating, up 13% and 6%, respectively, from a 1.6 and a 1.7 last October.

Sharing the No. 4 slot in primetime were USA Network and Cartoon Network, each tallying a 1.7 rating. Both USA and Cartoon were up 13%, from a 1.5 last October.

Lifetime Television followed with a 1.6, an 11% decrease from a 1.8 a year ago.

In the key demographics advertisers crave — 18 to 49, 18 to 34 and 25 to 54 — ESPN swept October, ranking No. 1 in delivery of those viewers in primetime.

ESPN's Oct. 26 Buffalo Bills-Kansas City Chiefs National Football League game was the top-rated program in October for persons 2-plus, with 9.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen data provided by Turner Entertainment Research.

Any way you sliced it, October was a home run for ESPN.

Its nine telecasts of the MLB Division Series averaged a 3.9 rating, while the network's NFL Sunday Night Football telecasts in October averaged a 7.2 rating for three games, up 21% from a 6.0.

Dramatic Hit

ESPN's first dramatic series, Playmakers, managed to both anger the NFL and average a 1.9 rating, or 1.6 million homes, since its Aug. 26 debut.

Summing up ESPN's October performance, ESPN Inc. president George Bodenheimer said in a statement, "These numbers speak volumes about the appeal of ESPN's programming mix to fans."

In defense of its controversial annual 20% rate increases ESPN, which has been publicly sparring with Cox, has cited the network's value to subscribers and the huge appeal of its content.

At least in October, the numbers seemed to bolster that argument.

Women-targeted Lifetime's ratings were down for several of its primetime series, with The Division and Strong Medicine dropping. But Lifetime still had four out of the five top-rated original dramatic series on basic cable. FX held the No 1 slot on that list, with Nip/Tuck.

"We've basically kind of leveled off since the beginning of the summer," said Tim Brooks, Lifetime Entertainment Services' executive vice president of research. "Our series are doing quite well, as are our movies.

"We've had 14 of the top 20 movies [in coverage-area ratings in October]. We feel we're in a good position to build."

The 24-hour news networks were all down dramatically versus a year ago in October, when ratings soared because of the huge story then unfolding: the Washington, D.C.-area sniper shootings.

But Fox News Channel was down less than the rest in October. It posted a 1.0 rating in primetime, off 33% from last October's 1.5. Cable News Network dropped 36% versus last year, to a 0.7 from a 1.1. And MSNBC slid a whopping 40%, to a 0.3 from a 0.5 last October. Its sister service, CNBC, was down 50%, to a 0.1 rating.

TNT ranked No. 1 with adults 25 to 54 in total day for the sixth consecutive month, and it was No. 2 in primetime behind ESPN in the delivery of 18-to-49-year-olds and adults 25 to 54.

Tucked In

TBS Superstation had October's biggest movie in terms of household delivery, Save the Last Dance.

Beleaguered ABC Family continued to slide in October, dipping 13% in primetime in October, to a 0.7 from a 0.8 a year ago.

FX, buoyed in large part by the hit Nip/Tuck, saw its primetime ratings rise 33%, to a 0.8. The network's primetime numbers also got a boost from its movie titles and fare like DVD on TV, according to Steve Leblang, senior vice president of strategic research and planning for FX Networks.

October's other big primetime ratings winners were: Discovery Health Channel, up 100% to a 0.2; Bravo [propelled by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy] up 67% to a 0.5; Animal Planet and SoapNet; each up 50% to a 0.6; and Home & Garden Television, up 50% to a 0.9.

For total-day in October among all cable networks, Nick kept its No. 1 roost, with a 1.4 rating, down 7% from last year, with Disney coming up as a strong No. 2 with a 1.2, up 33%.

October's Top 10
The top-rated cable primetime programs between Sept. 29 and Oct. 26.
Rank Network Show Rating
Source: ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, coverage-area household ratings.
1 ESPN NFL: Bills-Chiefs, Oct. 26 7.8
2 ESPN NFL: 49ers-Seahawks, Oct. 12 7.8
3 TLC Trading Spaces: 100 Grand, Oct. 5 7.0
4 ESPN MLB: Braves-Cubs, Oct. 3 6.7
5 ESPN MLB: Cubs-Braves, Oct. 1 6.3
6 ESPN NFL: Browns-Steelers, Oct. 5 6.0
7 ESPN MLB: Red Sox-Athletics, Oct. 1 4.0
8 Spike TV WWE Entertainment, Oct. 20 3.8
9 Spike TV WWE Entertainment, Oct. 13 3.8
10 ESPN NFL Prime Time, Oct. 26 3.8
11 ESPN NFL Prime Time, Oct. 12 3.8

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