NEW YORK (AP) -- Pro football has probably never been more important to television executives than this year, and its return has them ready to do a happy dance in the end zone.
A schedule of opening week games brought viewers back to their sets, led by a Hall of Fame caliber matchup between Tom Brady, a new member of the Tampa Bay Bucs, and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints.
That game was seen by just under 26 million people on Sunday afternoon on Fox. The network had its best viewership for an opening weekend of football since 2016, according to the Nielsen company.
Ratings for NBC's games on Thursday and Sunday night were down from opening week last year. CBS' five-game average for Sunday afternoon games was 13.59 million viewers, down 12 percent from 2019. The games faced competition from the NBA playoffs and news networks, stuffed with news on the presidential race, the pandemic and California wildfires.
ESPN's ''Monday Night Football'' franchise was markedly down from last year. The opening game of Monday's doubleheader, between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, reached 10.8 million viewers, down from the 13.5 million who watched last year's opener. For the second game, between Denver and Tennessee, 7.7 million people watched, down from 11 million last year.
Still, the games meant more viewers tuned in to the broadcasters than anytime in months.
Football's value to television advertisers keeps increasing, because few events have the ability to reach as many people at the same time with entertainment options multiplying. That's magnified this year with entertainment production largely shut down because of COVID-19.
With its two games, NBC dominated the prime time ratings, averaging 7.3 million viewers last week. Fox had 3.1 million, boosted by a sneak peek of ''The Masked Singer.'' CBS had 2.7 million, ABC had 2.4 million, Univision had 1.3 million, ION Television had 1.12 million and Telemundo had 1.09 million.
Fox News Channel led the cable networks, averaging 3.23 million viewers in prime time. TNT had 2.11 million, MSNBC had 2.05 million, ESPN had 1.92 million and HGTV had 1.31 million.
ABC's ''World News Tonight'' led the evening news ratings race, averaging 9 million viewers. NBC's ''Nightly News'' had 7 million and the ''CBS Evening News'' had 5.1 million.
For the week of Sept. 7-13, the top 20 prime time programs, their networks and viewerships:
1. NFL Football: Houston at Kansas City, NBC, 20.63 million.
2. NFL Football: Dallas at L.A. Rams, NBC, 18.94 million.
3. ''Thursday Night Pre-Game,'' NBC, 14.32 million.
4. ''Sunday Night Pre-Game,'' NBC, 13.06 million.
5. ''The OT,'' Fox, 11.99 million.
6. ''Football Night in America,'' NBC, 8.75 million.
7. ''60 Minutes,'' CBS, 8.02 million.
8. ''America's Got Talent'' (Tuesday), NBC, 6.01 million.
9. ''The Masked Singer,'' Fox, 5.57 million.
10. ''America's Got Talent'' (Wednesday), NBC, 5.51 million.
11. ''The Rachel Maddow Show'' (Tuesday), MSNBC, 5.01 million.
12. ''NCIS,'' CBS, 4.96 million.
13. ''Hannity'' (Wednesday), Fox News, 4.81 million.
14. NBA Playoffs: Houston vs. L.A. Lakers (Tuesday), TNT, 4.71 million.
15. NBA Playoffs: Boston vs. Toronto (Friday), TNT, 4.69 million.
16. ''Tucker Carlson Tonight'' (Wednesday), Fox News, 4.45 million.
17. ''Tucker Carlson Tonight'' (Thursday), Fox News, 4.41 million.
18. ''Hannity'' (Tuesday), Fox News, 4.4 million.
19. ''Hannity'' (Thursday), Fox News, 4.3 million.
20. ''Tucker Carlson Tonight'' (Tuesday), Fox News, 4.24 million.