New Orleans’s 31-17 victory in the Super Bowl on Sunday on CBS generated more viewers an average of 106.5 million than any other television program in United States history, defeating the 1983 broadcast of the final episode of “M*A*S*H.”
“It was going to happen at some point,” said Sean McManus, the president of CBS News and Sports. “I loved ‘M*A*S*H’ and watched it all the time. But all of us in the industry are relieved that we don’t have to hear that the Super Bowl was the second- or third-highest-rated broadcast in history, three million behind ‘M*A*S*H.’ ”
Alan Alda, the star of “M*A*S*H” and the director of its two-and-a-half-hour finale, wrote in an e-mail message: “I’m happy for New Orleans. I want to see that city come out first in every way that it can, even if it means giving up a record that ‘M*A*S*H’ held for a long time.” But, he said, “don’t give me the Magnanimity Medal yet.” He wonders about Nielsen Media’s ability to account for the effect of large groups gathered around TV sets to watch major events.
For a program to attract more than 100 million viewers today is nearly miraculous. There are 114.9 million TV households now, nearly 32 million more than when the final “M*A*S*H” attracted 106 million viewers. But the media universe is fractionalized now, with many more TV channels and other ways to amuse ourselves.
CBS, ABC and NBC held 80 percent of the share of prime-time viewing in 1983 when there was no Fox; the three command 28 percent now, with Fox adding 9 percent. The average home in 1983 had 10.3 channels; it now has more than 10 times as many. And sometimes, the best thing to watch is still a “M*A*S*H” rerun.
Ratings for big events were higher then than they are now. The final “M*A*S*H” generated a 60.2 rating (the estimated percentage of TV households tuned to a program); Sunday’s Super Bowl produced a 45.0. But a larger population means a lower rating can yield more viewers.
The Super Bowl is virtually immune to the altered TV landscape.
And it appears insulated from the vagaries of market size that afflict other sports whose championship series show up-and-down viewership patterns. Sunday’s matchup of modest-size TV markets 25th-ranked Indianapolis and 51st-ranked New Orleans might have hurt other sports.
“It’s amazing that in this era of competition and multiple screens to have an event like this,” said Brad Adgate, the senior vice president for research at Horizon Media. “The Super Bowl is the last media event.”
For the last five years, the Super Bowl’s viewership was on a path to inevitably surpass that of the “M*A*S*H” finale.
First, let’s go back a little further. In 1998, the Super Bowl between Green Bay and Denver hit 90 million. But the next seven games’ viewership ranged from 83.7 million to 89.8 million. Wonderful numbers but indicative of interest that was starting to plateau. But in 2006, the figure rose anew, to 90.7 million, and has increased each year.
For two medium-size markets to produce nine million more viewers than the Giants’ upset victory over New England two years ago is an interesting development. New York and Boston are the No. 1 and No. 7 markets.
But New Orleans and Indianapolis had the stirring story of one city’s fight to recover from Hurricane Katrina and the other city’s status as home to one of the N.F.L’s perennially elite teams.
Sunday’s game featured two of the best quarterbacks in the league, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, with the added features of Brees’s personal connection to New Orleans’s revival and Manning’s familial link to the city.
Both teams were No. 1 seeds and were undefeated until late in the season. “The national appeal of teams in any particular year is more important than the size of their markets,” McManus said.
The snow in the Middle Atlantic states kept inside some people who otherwise might have gone out.
Competitive games like Sunday’s help. Recent Super Bowls have been as compelling as they used to be banal.
Still, something else is at work. The N.F.L. had a great year. CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN had terrific seasons. Playoff ratings bordered on the astonishing. Football is engaging us more than ever.
“We paid a lot of attention to getting games into windows where they had an opportunity to do well,” said Howard Katz, the league’s senior vice president for media and its scheduler-in-chief. “We try to do that every year. Maybe we did a better job this year.”
Adgate points to the N.F.L.’s marketing, the effect of HDTV on the league’s popularity and fantasy football.
The Super Bowl is the only sports event that many people watch entirely for the ads, giving it two natural constituencies: sports fans and casual viewers who will endure the game to watch the commercials.
The viewership of future Super Bowls will now be measured against Sunday’s, as past games used to be compared with the final episode of “M*A*S*H.”
In his e-mail message, Alda said that he felt his and the N.F.L.’s records could not be compared.
“We hit it out of the park, and so did New Orleans,” he wrote. “Do I have the sports analogy right?”