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'Monday Night Football' rolls up big Nielsens

Watching the Dolphins-Patriots game Monday night? You won't be alone. Nielsen ratings for NFL games Dolphins3 are shooting through the roof on every network this season, and not just in the afternoon. NBC's prime-time telecasts have led the ratings for four Sundays in a row, and ESPN's Monday Night Football is once again a national viewing party.

Last week's Monday-night game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers has 17.5 million viewers, the biggest audience on cable this year and the fifth-biggest in all of all time. Overall, Monday Night Football is averaging 15 million viewers.

"It's really been a fantastic year to date," says Leah LaPlace, ESPN's vice president for programming.    "Monday Night Football is DVR-proof -- you know it will be the talk around the water cooler the next day. And we've benefited from great matchups that came down to wire, that have kept fans tuned in down to the bitter end."

It's tempting to surmise that a rocky economy has kept viewers home and planted in front of their TV sets. But overall TV ratings are not up -- the new fall season is shaping up to be one of the least successful in years, at least from a Nielsen standpoint -- and LaPlaca thinks other factors play a much bigger role. A key one: social media, which allow fans to link up with one another as they watch. ESPN.com, which includes a site that collects Twitter feeds and live-log entries, is drawing hundreds of millions of page views on the NFL's Sunday-Monday game days.

Whatever the reason, Monday Night Football has allowed ESPN to elbow its way into the traditional battle among broadcast networks for the biggest prime-time audience. "On Mondays, that ratings gap between cable and broadcast is becoming non-existent," says LaPlaca. "Fans these days are not differentiating between cable and broadcast."

Incidentally, LaPlaca denies that Monday Night Football has a favorite city. But the Dolphins-Patriots game will be the 31st Monday night telecast from Miami. The only city with more: San Francisco, with 33.

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