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ESPN Finishes Third In Cable Race As Debate Boosts Fox News

Sep 01, 2023

The last week of the NFL preseason and start of the U.S. Open saw ESPN shoot to third place in cable rankings with an average of 955,000 viewers in primetime, almost twice as many as tuned in the week before, but the sports channel still fell behind MSNBC and Fox News, which also saw a major ratings bump thanks to its hosting of the first Republican presidential primary debate last Wednesday.

Dyami Brown, No. 2, of the Washington Commanders celebrates after completing a pass for a touchdown ... [+] against the Baltimore Ravens during an NFL preseason game at FedExField on August 21, 2023.

Last Monday's NFL preseason game between the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Commanders, a 29-28 win by the Commanders thanks to a 49-yard field goal kicked in the final seconds, drew 2.9 million viewers and was the eighth most-watched cable program of the week, Nielsen data shows.

ESPN rose from the 10th most-watched cable channel the week before to the third spot in a week that also included the start of the U.S. Open Tennis tournament, the Little League World Series and Tour Championship golf tournament.

Preseason games aired on FOX (the Texans beat the Saints on Sunday, August 27) and CBS (the Lions beat the Panthers last Friday) were also among the top seven highest-rated broadcast programs of the week with viewership of 4.2 million and 3.4 million, respectively.

The breakthrough of preseason games are the first signs of a football season that will undoubtedly shakeup the usual dominance of cable news and broadcast competition shows—the NFL accounted for a record 82 of the 100 most-watched telecasts last year with an average regular season audience of 16.7 million viewers.

The first debate between eight of the Republican candidates vying for the GOP presidential nomination drew 11 million viewers to Fox News, per Nielsen ratings, and another 1.8 million on Fox Business Network, the Fox Nation streaming service and Fox News Digital to easily clench the top spot in the cable rankings. The countdown to the debate and the Wednesday night episode of The Sean Hannity Show that followed were the top three most-watched shows on cable last week, giving Fox News an average primetime viewership of 2.7 million for the week—up from 1.6 million the week before. MSNBC’s overall primetime viewership numbers stayed steady at 1.5 million with three shows in the top 10 most watched: Thursday's episode of All in With Chris Hayes saw 3.3 million viewers, a primetime special on former President Donald Trump's Fulton County indictment with Joy Ried on Thursday was watched by 3.1 million people and The Rachel Maddow Show's Monday episode was the 10th most-watched show with 2.7 million viewers.

Republican presidential candidates participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted ... [+] by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023.

CNN has struggled to maintain its position among the top cable news networks over the last year. The channel was ranked sixth in primetime viewership last week with an average of 790,000 viewers, up from earlier this month when it fell to 12th in primetime rankings. March brought CNN its lowest-rated week in more than seven years. In year-to-date primetime rankings, CNN is the 13th most-watched cable channel with an average of 557,000 viewers and the fifth most-watched in total day programming behind Fox News, MSNBC, ESPN and HLN, which is owned by CNN.

On Wednesday, CNN named former BBC and New York Times executive Mark Thompson as its new CEO. Thompson replaces Chris Licht, who was fired after a year at the helm that included declining viewership and profits, a widely criticized town hall with Trump and the messy public firing of primetime anchor Don Lemon.

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