NEW YORK – Serena Williams' long goodbye to the U.S. Open proved a boon to ESPN.
Facing down the possibility of a first-round knockout, Williams instead gave the sports network four nights of prime-time programming last week, with her eventual loss to Ajla Tomljanovic reaching the largest audience of any tennis match in ESPN's 43-year history.
ESPN happily adjusted on the fly, asking Open officials to move Williams' doubles match with her sister Venus to Thursday evening, and moving a college football game off its main network on Friday to make room for the match with Tomljanovic.
That Friday match reached 4.8 million viewers, peaking at 6.9 million, the Nielsen company said. It beat the previous record-holder, the 2012 Wimbledon men's final between Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
“We knew it was going to be a huge story,” said John Suchenski, ESPN's programming director, on Wednesday. “I'm not sure we knew how much it was going to play out, audience-wise. Obviously, we're thrilled by the numbers.”
Williams' first-round victory over Danka Kovinic last Monday, along with a post-match ceremony, was seen by 2.7 million people — or 289% above comparable first round coverage in 2021, Nielsen said. Wednesday's victory over Anett Kontaveit reached 3.6 million. Thursday's sister act, the first time ESPN has shown a doubles match in prime time, averaged 2.2 million.
Suchenski said he hoped for a “halo effect” that would boost the Open ratings for a Williams-less second week, but ESPN is cognizant of reality.
“The first week was the Serena Open,” tennis analyst John McEnroe said during Sunday's coverage. “Now it's the U.S. Open.”
Among broadcast networks last week, ABC led with a prime time average of 4.2 million viewers. NBC had 2.63 million, CBS had 2.56 million, Fox had 1.6 million, Univision had 1.1 million, Ion Television had 1 million and Telemundo had 860,000.
ESPN led all the cable networks with an average of 2.58 million, Fox News had 2.1 million, MSNBC had 1.36 million, HGTV had 870,000 and USA had 842,000.
The streaming debut of “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” reached an estimated 1.8 million U.S. households last weekend, according to Samba TV. That's Amazon Prime's biggest debut of the year, the research company said.
ABC's “World News Tonight” won the evening news ratings race with 7.2 million viewers last week, Nielsen said. NBC's “Nightly News” had 6 million and the “CBS Evening News” had 4.1 million.
For the week of Aug. 29-Sept. 4, the 20 most-watched programs in prime time, their networks and viewerships:
1. College Football: Notre Dame at Ohio State, ABC, 10.53 million.
2. College Football: Florida St. at LSU, ABC, 7.55 million.
3. “America's Got Talent” (Tuesday), NBC, 6.36 million.
4. “America's Got Talent” (Wednesday), NBC, 5.48 million.
5. “60 Minutes,” CBS, 5.12 million.
6. U.S. Open Tennis (Friday), ESPN, 4.56 million.
7. “Password,” NBC, 3.92 million.
8. “Big Brother” (Wednesday), CBS, 3.8 million.
9. “FBI,” CBS, 3.7 million.
10. “Big Brother” (Thursday), CBS, 3.68 million.
11. College Football: Penn State at Purdue, Fox, 3.51 million.
12. “Tucker Carlson Tonight” (Monday), Fox News, 3.39 million.
13. “Bachelorette: Men Tell All,” ABC, 3.32 million.
14. “Press Your Luck,” ABC, 3.294 million.
15. “Tucker Carlson Tonight” (Tuesday), Fox News, 3.288 million.
16. “Big Brother” (Sunday), CBS, 3.27 million.
17. “Young Sheldon,” CBS, 3.208 million.
18. “The Neighborhood,” CBS, 3.206 million.
19. College Football: West Virginia at Pittsburgh, ESPN, 3.15 million.
20. “American Ninja Warrior,” NBC, 3.14 million.