ESPN scores ratings win with “The Last Dance”

Debut of highly-anticipated documentary series doesn’t disappoint in the ratings or quality department.

The premiere of the documentary chronicling the Chicago Bulls’ final championship season proved to be the draw it was supposed to be.

The ten-hour series The Last Dance was originally supposed to premiere on ESPN in June, but was moved up to April as the coronavirus pandemic wiped out live sporting events across the globe, leaving ESPN and other national and regional sports networks with little fresh material to air.

The Last Dance’s first two episodes drew a big crowd Sunday night to ESPN and ESPN 2, drawing an average of 6.1 million live viewers from 8-10 p.m. Central Time.  In the all-important adult 18-49 demo, Dance averaged a 2.7 rating during the two hours, easily beating everything on the broadcast networks including NCIS: New Orleans and American Idol.

Breaking down both hours, Dance drew 6.3 million viewers on ESPN and ESPN 2 and the second hour drew 5.8 million viewers among both networks. ESPN 2 aired a “bleeped” version of the documentary, but in all, only a handful of “f-bombs” were present in the broadcast.

The numbers gave ESPN its most-watched original program since 2004 when it aired You Don’t Know Bo, which drew 3.6 million viewers. In 2016, a ten-part documentary O.J.: Made in America’s premiere drew a 3.4 million. The first two episodes of The Last Dance are now ESPN’s most-watched documentaries ever.

This is the second straight weekend an offering on cable bested programming on the broadcast networks. On April 11, Lifetime’s original movie on the Detroit-based gospel group The Clark Sisters drew 2.7 million viewers and a 0.7 rating in the adult 18-49 (and a 0.9 in women 18-49) – beating everything on the broadcast networks in both demos.

Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson celebrate their sixth and final NBA championship together. (JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)

Locally, The Last Dance was a big hit, drawing a 12.6 household rating for the first hour and an 11.7 rating for the second, averaging a 12.1 rating for both hours (numbers for both the ESPN and ESPN 2 telecasts are included in the total.) By comparison, the last cable documentary originating in Chicago – CNN’s much criticized eight-part Chicagoland in 2014, the first episode earned only a 1.8 household rating, giving Dance a whopping 600 percent advantage. Nationally, Dance’s 6.3 million first-episode viewers dwarfed Chicagoland’s 629,000 by a staggering 902 percent.

Utilizing smart TV data provided by Inscape, Chicago was the top DMA for Dance, followed by three other Illinois markets – Peoria-Bloomington, Rockford, and Champaign-Springfield-Decatur (St. Louis – which has numerous Illinois markets in its DMA known as MetroEast, did not place in the top five.) Other areas with high viewership include Jonesboro, Ark. (near where Scottie Pippen grew up) and Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, in Michael Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. Raleigh had the second highest TV rating for the docuseries (6.5); Charlotte the fourth-highest (4.5).

While many were comparing last night’s ratings for The Last Dance to the Bulls’ ratings during the 1997-98 season (where they easily topped every program in the market – even Seinfeld, which was the top-rated program nationally), keep in mind today’s viewers watch TV differently than they did back then. The Last Dance was repeated at 11 p.m. and at midnight, not to mention numerous viewers who were watching via DVR. Netflix plans to release the documentary to its service July 19.

Response to The Last Dance – during the program and before it aired based on reviews from TV critics has been phenomenal with a 91 Metacritic rating and an outstanding 100 percent “certified fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 

The first two episodes of The Last Dance were certainly impressive. A camera crew followed the team during the 1997-98 season before the team went their separate ways – a notion a lot of people figured as tensions between the team and management were on clear display. As contracts were expiring, then-coach Phil Jackson dubbed the season “The Last Dance”.

Giving interviews were Pippen, Jordan, Jackson, and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, among others – and even footage of Bob Costas was shown when he was calling Bulls games for WGN during the 1979-80 season. The premiere of the ESPN documentary received considerable hype in local media – even on rival news stations (ESPN owner Disney also owns ABC 7, aka WLS-TV in Chicago.)

The Last Dance continues on ESPN and ESPN 2 for the next four Sundays.

(Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated The Last Dance would be available on Netflix two days after airing. It has since been corrected. – T.H.)

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