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ESPN's Monday Night Rally

Overcoming a string of clunkers on the field, ESPN managed to rally with its last two Monday Night Football matchups and ease past the Nielsen goal line during the 2010 season.

In its fifth MNF campaign, ESPN averaged a 10.5 rating (9.1 nationally), 10.49 million households and 14.66 million watchers, advances of 1%, 2% and 2%, respectively, over the 10.4 cable rating, 10.3 million households and 14.38 million watchers in 2009. That had been ESPN’s previous best with the franchise it took over from Disney broadcast brethren ABC.

The late-season push also means that ESPN will join the NFL’s other carriers in scoring regular-season ratings gains during its current campaign.

The worldwide leader was bolstered by the 19.1 million who watched New Orleans edge Atlanta 17-14 on Dec. 27, its top telecast of the season and the third-largest in cable history.

ESPN also rung every last bit of drama out of Brett Favre during the Dec. 20 game. Declared out with the same bad shoulder that snapped his league record 297th consecutive start the week before against the New York Giants, Favre strapped it on one last time before the frigid Vikings faithful at the University of Minnesota, before absorbing a concussion during Minnesota’s 40-14 trouncing at the hands of the Chicago Bears. That game, despite the old gunslinger’s second-quarter exit, was viewed by almost 17.1 million, which ranks as the 10th-largest cable audience ever.

Those contests helped make up for the small-market teams — Tennessee-Jacksonville on Oct. 18 and Houston-Indianapolis on Nov. 1 — the NFL bestowed on its biggest rights’ benefactor at some $1.1 billion annually. The Week 15 and 16 contests also overcame a run of four consecutive routs — Philly 59-Washington 28, San Diego 35-Denver 14, San Francisco 27-Arizona 6 and New England 45- New York Jets 3 — that no doubt reduced average viewership on the Monday nights between Nov. 15 and Dec. 6.

Looking ahead to next season (a precept that would be helped by the lack of an NFL labor stoppage) and beyond, ESPN may have difficulty matching its MNF success of the last couple of seasons, on the Favre factor alone. No. 4’s presumed retirement will reduce the number of casual Nielsen NFL fans. After all, his presence has helped account for the first, eighth and 10th most-watched shows in cable history (see list below).

Top 10 Most-Viewed Programs in Cable Television History (Viewers):

Rank DateProgram NetworkViewers(000s)

1. 10/05/2009Green Bay Packers-Minnesota VikingsESPN21,839

2.11/30/2009New England Patriots-New Orleans SaintsESPN21,402

3.12/27/2010New Orleans Saints-Atlanta FalconsESPN19,137

4.09/15/2008 Philadelphia Eagles-Dallas CowboysESPN18,608

5.10/25/2010New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys ESPN 17,953

6.12/03/2007 New England Patriots-Baltimore RavensESPN17,522

7.09/27/2010 Green Bay Packers-Chicago BearsESPN17,454

8.10/11/2010Minnesota Vikings-New York Jets ESPN 17,313

9.08/17/2007High School Musical 2Disney 17,241

10.12/20/2010Chicago Bears-Minnesota VikingsESPN17,094