There's a new king of prime time this fall, and for the first time in television history it's not a sitcom, drama or reality show.

It's football: " NBC Sunday Night Football," which debuted two weeks ago to record ratings that placed it atop the Nielsen standings.

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The franchise that bills itself as "Football Night in America" and opens each week with Faith Hill singing that she's "been waitin' all day for Sunday night" is the most valuable property in prime time, having finished last fall as the No. 1 show with young viewers, beating such competition as "Dancing with the Stars."

The success is fueled by a larger phenomenon, analysts say: a surge in ratings for football on all the networks and cable channels, signaling a shift in lifestyle and viewing away from increasingly contrived reality-TV fare.

As the Ravens come before network cameras today in their home opener against the Cleveland Browns, football on TV keeps getting bigger — even as entertainment programming gets smaller with network cutbacks in scripted drama and comedy.

"There is very little left on television that is live and unscripted that we don't know the end to," says Richard Deitsch, senior editor and media writer for Sports Illustrated. "Sports really is the ultimate reality programming, because unlike a lot of the so-called reality programming, which is absolutely faux and staged, we truly don't know how football games will end. And when you think of all the things going on with TV football these days, I think it really is the signature programming in American television right now."

"NBC Sunday Night Football" is averaging an audience of 25.3 million viewers through its first two weeks. That's up 16 percent over last year and 52 percent better than 2008 — and one of its games this year, between the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants, was a blowout. The nearest competition, last week's season opener of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," drew 20.99 million viewers. Last fall, "Dancing" edged out "Sunday Night Football" as the highest-rated series in prime time.

And NBC is not the only network enjoying a great football-fueled start to the new season. ESPN's "Monday Night Football," which debuted Sept. 13 with a battle royal between the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, also set a new viewing record, as have Sunday afternoon games on Fox and CBS. Last Sunday's CBS game between the New England Patriots and New York Jets was the highest-rated game on CBS since 1994, when it reacquired rights to NFL games.

In Baltimore, more than 400,000 TV homes, 41 percent of all homes in the market, were tuned to the game between the Ravens and Jets. No prime-time entertainment series — not "American Idol," not "NCIS" — will draw nearly that large an audience in Baltimore this year.

In fact, no entertainment program in Baltimore is likely to top even the 220,000 Baltimore TV homes that tuned in for the Washington Redskins game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 12.

"Last year, the only thing that would have come close to football in Baltimore prime [time] was the Olympics," says Jordan Wertlieb, general manager of WBAL-TV, Baltimore's NBC affiliate and the broadcast channel for local Olympics coverage. "This year, there's nothing in prime [time] that will come close."

Typical of the way football viewing is trending this fall: The Thursday night season opener Sept. 9 between the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings was watched in more homes in New Orleans than last year's Super Bowl, which was won by the Saints.

"With all the splintering that's going on in the country and the technology-driven niches that are separating even family members one from the other in the home at night, there are very few events that bring people together anymore," says Mike McCarley, senior vice president for marketing at NBC Sports. "We're very conscious of trying to build an inclusive broadcast. To us, 'Sunday Night Football' is a communal gathering place for families and friends."

TV's big night

Sunday night is still the night of the week with highest viewership, according to Nielsen Media Research. And NBC is trying to create a big-event sensibility that goes beyond the games themselves, with highlights of all the other games played earlier in the day, super-slick production values, halftime concerts and interviews with newsmakers — all packaged under the banner "Football Night in America." Last year, NBC swamped the competition in 15 of the 16 Sunday nights that it had NFL games.

"Every night of the week feels a little different," McCarley says. "But Sunday night has a really special feel to it. It's the last moment in time before the crazy workweek begins and everyone is off to the races Monday morning. Sunday night is the only night that has that feeling of everyone being at home. And we're trying to program to that with a TV event."

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The concept of big-event television is an old one that reaches back to the 1970s and a media landscape radically different from the fragmented one that exists today. But NBC and ESPN use many of their corporate digital and social media platforms to drive viewers to the Sunday and Monday night broadcasts that they have deftly packaged as affordable family fun in these economically troubled times. (NBC is part of Universal, while ESPN is part of Disney-ABC.)

"We have this institution in 'Monday Night Football' that has been appointment television for decades," Leah Buhl LaPlaca, ESPN programming vice president, says of the storied TV franchise now in its 41st season. "And, now, we have all these different platforms — the Facebooks, the Twitters, ESPN radio, ESPN.com, ESPN Mobile, Fantasy Football.

"All of those platforms are creating a shared experience that fans want to be part of in terms of that live, Monday night game event," she said. "And the game then creates the water-cooler talk that we're all going to be talking about the next day in all those different media."

The economy helps

Media executives and analysts offer myriad explanations for the rising tide of TV football ratings. But one factor they all agree on is the economy.

"The TV ratings for pro football have been creeping up for four or five seasons, but the numbers this year are miraculous," says Douglas Gomery, resident scholar at the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"What was the biggest audience gainer during the Great Depression?" he asks, offering a historical parallel to these harsh times. "It was not the MGM movie musicals or any of the other films showing rich and glamorous people, as conventional wisdom holds. It was radio, sports on the radio — baseball and the big fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling [1936 and 1938]. That's the same thing that we are seeing today with TV, football, the economy and family entertainment."

"You hear bad news all the time — people are losing jobs, the price of gas and the price of food are rising," NBC's McCarley says. "People work really hard during the week, and they're looking for a little time to kick back and relax and enjoy an affordable big event that they know everybody is going to be talking about the next day. And that's what we're offering with football."

In fact, some analysts say, with its improved high-definition technology and relatively low cost compared with game tickets, televised football is so perfectly attuned to its audience and the times that it is creating problems for the NFL with game attendance. While the Ravens' home games are consistent sellouts, NFL officials acknowledge that teams in other markets have struggled to sell tickets this fall.

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"When you talk about attendance and television, it really comes down to the economy," says John Ourand, media reporter for the SportsBusiness Journal, a trade magazine.

"We had a roundtable with executives from five NFL teams coming into our offices, and all they talked about was trying to sell tickets, trying to get stadium sellouts," Ourand says. "And almost immediately, their talk turned to 'How can we make the game experience as good or better as what you get when you're at home and watching on your beautiful HD with camera angles everywhere?' The home-viewing experience is so good right now, it almost detracts from going to the games."

Let's not forget …

Beyond an economy that has driven millions of Americans to less expensive in-home entertainment, and the deft use of new media to help create big-event experiences, there are other reasons offered by analysts and TV executives to explain football's ratings.

Ourand cites "compelling story lines that reach beyond hardcore football fans" — like the Saints rising to the occasion at a time when New Orleans needed something in which to believe, or Bret Favre's retirement soap opera.

"Fans may hate Favre saying 'I will play, I won't play,' but what he's doing is making people talk about the NFL in May and June, when traditionally they wouldn't be talking about the NFL at all," Ourand says. "And that helps create a kind of year-round promotion for the start of the season."

Deitsch of Sports Illustrated includes the role of fantasy football, now enjoyed by 30 million Americans.

"What it has done is made every game relevant — not just the game in your community. If you have drafted a player from Kansas City or San Diego for your fantasy team, you now care about how those teams do — even if you live in Baltimore. So today, more people are tuning into games other than those involving the home team," Deitsch says.

"This is a fascinating phenomenon that can't be explained by just one cause. It's too big. Last year, the NFL averaged something to the effect of 16 million viewers per regular season game, while prime-time programming was about 8 million.

"That alone tells you how much more interest Americans have in football programs than they do in prime-time programming," he added. "And I think the numbers are only going to go up this year. The ending is nowhere in sight."

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