If you watched ESPN’s new college football playoffs on New Year’s Day, you were part of a record-making group. According to Nielsen, 28.2 million viewers tuned in to the Rose Bowl game between Oregon and Florida State, and another 28.3 million watched the Ohio State-Alabama game, pushing them into the top two spots for the largest audiences in cable television history. The NFL wild card game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Carolina Panthers that aired on ESPN the following Saturday landed at eighth overall, drawing 21.7 milion viewers. If you're sensing a trend, that's because there is one. Sports have long been the biggest draw on cable. Following these recent record-breakers, ESPN is responsible for the largest 19 audiences in cable television history, and 37 of the top 40.
Check out the chart below for the top ten cable audiences of all time. Or, put another way, the most popular ESPN broadcasts of all time.
The only non-ESPN program to crack the top 20 was the season five premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead. With 17.3 million viewers, it replaced a 2007 airing of High School Musical 2 in the top spot for non-sports cable television audience.