During a recent industry luncheon, I overheard a lively discussion between two cable-sports executives regarding the reasons behind the knockout ratings live sports telecasts have generated for cable so far this fall.
One exec said sports, unlike any other genre, provides unique, unscripted and in-your-face home-entertainment value to consumers looking to maximize their leisure dollars in a still-weak economic environment.
His counterpart pointed to the unique value of live sports in what has become a very time-shifted, digital-video-recorder-heavy TV environment.
While their reasons differed, there's no debating that sports programming is a hot commodity with cable viewers.
On Oct. 5, more than 21 million watched Brett Favre pass his Minnesota Vikings to a win over the Green Bay Packers — and into the record books as cable's most-watched show ever.
Through four weeks, NFL telecasts on ESPN, NBC, Fox and CBS averaged 17.4 million viewers, the most in 20 years.
Versus' Oct. 1 opening-night National Hockey League doubleheader skated to the largest hockey audience in the network's five years of season debuts, averaging 832,781 viewers.
TBS's coverage of the Oct. 6 Detroit Tigers-Minnesota Twins extra-inning American League tiebreaker drew some 6.54 million watchers, making it baseball's most-watched regular-season telecast this year — cable or broadcast.
Women's pro hoops games are also getting some ratings love. Viewership for the Phoenix Mercury-Indiana Fever WNBA Finals was pacing at double last year's series going into the fifth and deciding game last Friday (Oct. 9).
As for the reasons behind the ratings surge, both execs are right.
In tough economic times, people are looking for at-home entertainment options, and sports consistently provides unpredictable, exciting content.
Live sporting events also remain one of the few TV options that are virtually DVR-proof.
While the percentage of DVR viewing for most entertainment shows is in or near double digits, the available live-plus-seven-day viewership numbers for ESPN's Monday Night Football games thus far in 2009 is less than 1%, according to Nielsen.
Viewers prefer to watch sports as it happens — and then escape to a fictional world of sitcoms and police procedurals at their leisure, via DVR.