The New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts not only ended 42 seasons of football futility for the franchise, it also shattered one of the television industry's most storied records.
About 106.5 million tuned into CBS' telecast of Super Bowl XLIV on Sunday, making it the most watched TV program in the United States ever and topping the series finale of that network's legendary wartime sitcom "MASH," which drew 106 million viewers in 1983, according to Nielsen.
Of course, the television landscape has changed dramatically over the last three decades. When the "MASH" finale aired on Feb. 28, 1983, there were 83.3 million homes with televisions; now there are almost 115 million homes with televisions. Conversely, while there may be more eyeballs available now than there were 27 years ago, there are also a lot more options for viewers. "MASH" played in the glory days when CBS, NBC and ABC ruled the airwaves. Now there are hundreds of cable channels and the Internet competing for attention.
A tight game, the feel-good story of the Saints, and a massive snowstorm in the country's mid-Atlantic region that kept people indoors certainly didn't hurt the ratings. But the huge audience for the Super Bowl is also indicative of the strength of big-event programming and the rising power of social media in an era of media fragmentation.
Though the media landscape has become increasingly competitive over the last decade as television does battle with the Internet for the attention of viewers, this is the fifth straight year that the audience for the Super Bowl has increased. Last year's nail-biter between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals on NBC had 98.7 million viewers.
Omen for Oscars?
Award shows have also seen ratings surge this year. The Grammys were up 35%, while the Golden Globes grew by 14%. No doubt ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hope this trend holds next month for the Oscars, which has had its format tweaked in an effort to juice the ratings.
"There is an incredible focus on anything that brings people together because there are so few events left like that," observed Josh Bernoff, a vice president with Forrester Research.
Social networking also may be driving ratings growth, particularly when it comes to these big-ticket items. No longer satisfied with sitting on their couch and complacently watching a show, more and more viewers are taking to sites such as Facebook and Twitter to express their views on what they're seeing.
Someone watching the Super Bowl alone can now feel like they are with a group of friends without having to worry about cleaning up dishes later.
Twitter was overloaded a few times during the game, with people tweeting about advertisements -- particularly the spot featuring David Letterman, Jay Leno and Oprah Winfrey -- as well as about the game and the Who's halftime performance.
"There is no question that people are now much more sophisticated about the use of their media, it amounts to millions of people having an experience other than just sitting around watching the game," CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves said.
"Everyone who is watching the Super Bowl who is on Twitter or Facebook is automatically at a Super Bowl party," observed Andrew Frank, a vice president at Gartner Inc., an information technology research firm.
The big number from the Super Bowl provided a strong lead-in for CBS' new reality show "Undercover Boss," which premiered after the game and drew 38.6 million viewers. That is also a record for a new show's premiere after the Super Bowl.
Gamble pays off
CBS took a gamble by launching a brand new show after the game. In recent years, networks have tended to use the post-Super Bowl time slot for a special episode of an established show, as was the case last year with NBC and "The Office." The last time a network premiered a new show was in 1999, when Fox ran "Family Guy" after the match between the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons.
"Undercover Boss" also benefited from CBS' decision to run a very short post-game wrap-up, allowing the program -- which follows corporate chieftains as they go undercover at their own companies -- to start at 10:13 p.m. EST. Sometimes the game and post-game show run so long that it's not unusual for the entertainment programming scheduled after the game to start after 10:30 p.m. in the East, which usually means lower ratings as fatigued viewers drift away.
The audience size wasn't the only record set by Super Bowl XLIV. According to industry consulting firm Kantar Media, the telecast had 47 minutes and 50 seconds of commercials, which was also a new benchmark for the game.
Advertisers paid between $2.5 million and $2.7 million for a commercial although some advertisers may have paid as much as $3 million to get into the game.
Fox, which has the game next year, will likely use this year's huge ratings to try to push the cost per 30-second spot well over the $3-million mark.
"MASH" star Alan Alda had no hard feelings about his sitcom's record falling to the Saints.
"I hope it gives even more to cheer about to a city I love," he said in a statement. He added that he -- no doubt like much of the media industry -- wonders "how does Nielsen know how many actual people were watching either broadcast."