Viewers Are Ready for Some Football

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The 2006 football season is in fine fettle, as both pro- and college-football coverage is off to a strong start from a Nielsen Media Research perspective.

Indeed, Monday Night Football kicked off on cable in record-breaking ratings fashion, while NBC scored big with its return to pro football. On the collegiate level, ESPN and ABC both generated strong ratings.

ESPN -- which is paying the National Football League $1.1 million annually in rights fees for the franchise formerly held by broadcast brethren ABC -- attracted 12.6 million viewers, the most in the total-sports network’s 27 years and the second most in cable history.

Tuned in by an average of 9.18 million households from 7 p.m.-10:15 p.m. (EST) Sept. 11, the Minnesota Vikings’ 19-16 victory over the Washington Redskins -- the first of two games that night -- trailed only the 11.2 million households that watched a November 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot on CNN, according to ESPN officials.

ESPN’s previous record: the 8.93 million households that watched the Detroit Lions visit the Miami Dolphins on Christmas 1994.

The second game of ESPN’s Sept. 11 NFL doubleheader -- the San Diego Chargers’ 27-0 drubbing of the Oakland Raiders at 10:15 p.m. -- tackled an average of 7.87 million households and 10.5 million viewers.

The Vikings-Redskins contest averaged a 9.9 household cable rating, while Chargers-Raiders notched an 8.5.

During what will be its usual MNF time slot of 8:30 p.m.-11:45 p.m., ESPN averaged an 11.3 rating, with an 11.4 from 8 p.m.-11 p.m., the highest of any broadcast or cable network in primetime that day. Last season, ESPN averaged a 7.1 cable rating for Sunday Night Football, including a 9.1 mark for its opening contest.

Last season’s MNF opener on ABC -- which reaches 110 million households, versus 90 million or so for ESPN -- garnered 19.6 million viewers, 36% more than the cable network averaged with Vikings-Redskins.

Adding in the pregame and postgame shows, ESPN delivered 24.6 gross ratings points Sept. 11, while NFL content on ESPN.com (espn.go.com), including Monday Night Surround, generated more than 36 million page views that day, up from 25 million on the first Monday night of the 2005 NFL season, according to HitBox (www.multichannel.com/article/CA6371866.html).

Monday Night Football is a clear winner for ESPN. We’re thrilled that fans enjoyed our new daylong multimedia approach to this storied franchise,” said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports, in a prepared statement. “To average more than 10 million viewers for each game demonstrates the power of Monday Night Football and ESPN.”

For its part, NBC, which took over ESPN’s former Sunday-night NFL slot, pulled in 22.6 million viewers for a matchup of the brothers Manning -- the Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton topped the New York Giants’ Eli 26-21 -- the highest number of watchers for an NFL primetime opener since the first MNF game in 2000.

NBC -- which returned to pro pigskin coverage Sept. 7 after an eight-year absence -- brought home 19.6 million viewers to its coverage of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ triumph over the Miami Dolphins that night.

NBC’s games ranked as the first- and third-most-viewed TV shows of Sept. 4-10. The Sept. 5 installment of Fox medical drama House, with 19.7 million viewers, was second.

Meanwhile, ABC also has a football hit with its new Saturday-night primetime package of college games. Through the first two weeks, Saturday Night Football -- which benefited from the Sept. 9 matchup between No. 1 Ohio State and then-No. 2 Texas -- averaged a 6.8 household rating.

The Buckeyes’ win over the Longhorns was the fifth-most-viewed show of the week, with 13.3 million viewers and 9.11 million households. ESPN/ABC officials said Ohio State-Texas was the most-viewed college regular-season game since Nov. 30, 1996, when Florida-FloridaState averaged 10.6 million households.

ESPN enjoyed its most-watched college-football game ever on Labor Day with Florida State-Miami. The Sept. 4 contest collected 9.1 million viewers, making it the top show of the week in ad-supported cable.

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