ESPN's Monday Night Football was cable television's highest-rated series in 2013, a feat it has accomplished eight years in a row since the prime-time staple moved from ABC to the Worldwide Leader in 2006. Total viewership rose seven percent from last year, reaching a three-year high, and the average rating grew five percent from 8.2 to 8.6, per Nielsen and a press release issued by ESPN's communications department.
Overall, ESPN claims that this marks the 27th consecutive year that the network's prime-time NFL series has been cable’s most-watched series. During the previous 19 years, ESPN broadcast Sunday Night Football.
Ultimately in 2013, the network's lone weekly live NFL presentation gave use "six of cable’s 10 biggest audiences for the calendar year," according to ESPN.
The highest-rated game: Dallas-Chicago on Dec. 9 — a blowout that still pulled in a 10.2 rating to win the night.
The most-watched game: Philadelphia-Washington in Week 1 — another one-sided game that managed to draw a ridiculous 16.5 million viewers.
Naturally, big TV markets and the NFC East were attached to both big games.
As you can see in the chart below, this is a big deal for ESPN.
It looked as though MNF's yearly numbers had begun to plummet after peaking in 2010. Saturated prime-time and cable markets were undoubtedly making an impact across the board. And while it's doubtful MNF will ever jump back above 9.0 in the ratings department, consider the games they had to work with this season.
There was that terrible Vikings-Giants matchup that was arguably the worst of all time. Texans-Chargers, Jets-Falcons, Dolphins-Buccaneers and 49ers-Redskins weren't much more appealing. Colts-Chargers, Saints-Seahawks and Cowboys-Bears were duds. The only truly memorable games were Patriots-Panthers and Ravens-Lions.
Plus, there was the continued emergence of AMC's The Walking Dead, which piggybacked off of Breaking Bad by drawing an unbelievable 16.1 million viewers for its Season 4 premiere on Oct. 13, making that episode the most-watched non-sporting event in cable television history. The following week, episode two beat Colts-Chargers on ESPN to make that show the first to beat Monday Night Football two consecutive weeks.
MNF still slayed the Breaking Bad finale and everyone else in its path, but it barely even owned more top-10 spots on cable than The Walking Dead, which beat it four times in a six-week span during the fall.
The final score in the top 10 was thus MNF 6, The Walking Dead 4. But in the eight weeks in which those two juggernauts competed, it was dead even at 4-4. Finishing second to zombies: Jets-Falcons, Colts-Chargers, Seahawks-Rams and Dolphins-Buccaneers. Pretty crazy considering that, between 2010 and 2012, MNF always owned at least nine of those top 10 slots on the most-watched cable episode list.
The NFL has quite literally met its match in the cable world in the zombies of The Walking Dead and it'll be interesting to see if ESPN's streak continues next year.