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An Item of Significance, Though Perhaps Not for the Reason You Think (Corrected)

By RD Heldenfels Published: September 20, 2006

I've been chewing on this item from ESPN. (Bold type in the release is the network's.)

For the second week in a row, Monday Night Football on ESPN delivered the network’s largest audience ever. The Jacksonville Jaguars 9-0 shutout of the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers – the lowest-scoring game in MNF history (561 games) – was seen by an average of 9,809,000 homes (13,325,000 viewers, P2+), based on a 10.6 rating.  Also for the second week, MNF was the force behind a day of tremendous ratings for ESPN and a major boost to and its new "Monday Night Surround" content.  ESPN’s three MNF games so far are cable television’s best ratings and largest audiences of the year.

ESPN’s MNF telecast was simulcast on local over-the-air channels in Pittsburgh (33.9 rating) and Jacksonville (23.7 rating), boosting the network’s audience to an estimated average of 10,353,000 households.  Adding in the pre- and post-game shows, ESPN delivered 22.1 gross ratings points. 

In addition, NFL and "Monday Night Surround" content viewed on computers and wireless devices generated more than 32.2 million page views Monday, up 53 percent over page views last year according to Web measurement tool HitBox.

“ESPN’s presentation of Monday Night Football – an immersive all-day experience on television and online—clearly demonstrates the impact of ESPN’s multiple assets at work." said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN senior vice president, research and sales development.  "Considering last night’s debut of the new season on broadcast television, delivering cable’s second-biggest audience in history is very impressive."

The record set last week was 9,177,000 homes for Minnesota at Washington, based on a 9.9 rating (12,570,000 viewers – P2+).   Last night’s telecast also supplants last week’s game as the second largest audience in cable television history (behind CNN's NAFTA debate in November 1993 between Al Gore and Ross Perot – 11,174,000 households). (end excerpt)

Now, you can look at this as evidence that football is doing very well for ESPN on MONDAY nights [Thanks, Fred], and that's fine. But I have been pondering the old issue of cable vs. broadcast TV.

If the largest audience for a single cable telecast is indeed roughly 11.2 million households for the Al Gore-Ross Perot debate, then cable still hasn't become destination television for many, many viewers.

Now, measuring by households is pretty dubious on its own, since almost no one in the television industry looks seriously at that number -- unless it works to the individual's advantage. You can look at total viewers, or -- even more common -- you can look at the audience within a specific age group, which is how advertisers are more likely to consider things.

Still, I will play fair and use households. The cable record is, again according to ESPN, the 11-million plus for Gore-Perot. In last week's Nielsens, three shows were watched in more households -- ''Dancing With the Stars,'' ''NBC Sunday Night Football'' and the ''Dancing'' results show. Nor was this some big record-busting week for broadcast television; in fact, a lot of popular shows were still in rerun.

Now let's look at the total-viewer number ESPN had, more than 13 million viewers, its largest audience ever. I counted eight broadcast shows last week that had more viewers, according to Nielsen estimates, with more than 20 million just for ''Dancing With the Stars.''

I do love some cable shows, and I am glad cable is there. And ESPN can pop all the champagne corks it wants to for the historic success it is having. Let's still remember that the numbers that so impress one TV entity are not necessarily impressive in the world of TV as a whole.

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