TV Long View: The Super Bowl Has Never Not Been Huge

Super Bowl LIV Generic 1 - Getty - H 2020
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A set of statistics from Fox Sports executive Michael Mulvilhill made the rounds of TV Twitter earlier this week, pointing out the escalating gap between the Super Bowl and the top-rated primetime entertainment show over the years.

Fifty-one years ago, when the New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in what was hailed then as one of the greatest upsets in sports history, the Super Bowl drew a household rating about 13 percent higher than the top-rated series that season (Laugh-In, for the record).

By last year, the Super Bowl's 41.1 household rating was more than five times that of the top entertainment show — and that's for a game that had its smallest household number in more than a decade.

Ultimately, those figures say more about the enormous changes to the TV landscape in the past half-century than they do about the Super Bowl itself. When 100 million or so people turn on Fox on Sunday to watch the San Francisco 49ers take on the Kansas City Chiefs, that will represent an audience that's been relatively constant, even as the rest of television is scarcely recognizable from what it was a half-century ago. 

It's easy to look at the viewer figures for the first few Super Bowls and come to the conclusion that the broadcast, which has averaged better than 108 million viewers each year for the past decade, is more than twice as big as it was in its first decade (49.8 million average for Super Bowls I through X). While technically true, it's hardly the whole picture.

For starters, the U.S. has about 130 million more people in it now than when the first Super Bowl aired in 1967. The growth in the audience for the game has outpaced population growth, but comparing viewer counts from now and then makes for a shaky argument.

A better comparison is household ratings, which remain a fixed percentage of the number of homes with TVs: One ratings point equals 1 percent of TV households, regardless of the era. And on that front, the Super Bowl hasn't wavered much over the years.

The 53 Super Bowls played thus far have averaged a 43.5 household rating, and there hasn't been huge amount of variance over the years. The all-time low in households is a 36.0 for Super Bowl III in 1969, and the high is a 49.1 for the 1982 game. The household rating has only dipped below 40 on five occasions, four of which came in the game's first five years. The last was in 1990, which featured the most lopsided score in Super Bowl history (49ers 55, Denver Broncos 10).

Similarly, both the share of viewers watching the Super Bowl and the viewership relative to the total U.S. population have remained fairly steady.

Nielsen's share measures the number of homes watching TV at a given time and tuned into a specific broadcast. The Super Bowl has averaged a 66 share over its history — meaning that on the average Super Bowl Sunday, it captures two-thirds of the audience watching TV.

The highest shares came for the inaugural game in 1967, which delivered a 79 share between CBS and NBC (both networks aired the game) and 1976, when the first Pittsburgh Steelers-Dallas Cowboys matchup in the game had a 78. The lowest share is 61, which has happened five times, most recently in 2003.

As a percentage of the entire U.S. population, the Super Bowl audience hovered around 25 percent for its first decade. Starting with Super Bowl XII in 1978, when the game made a big leap in audience (more on that below), it has consistently averaged an audience equivalent to about a third of the population. A higher percentage of people tune in for at least a few minutes: Nielsen's "reach" statistic of people who watch six minutes or more is typically up to 40 percent higher than the average audience per minute.

The Super Bowl has made leaps of 20 percent or more in total viewers three times in its history.

In 1972, Super Bowl VI jumped by 23 percent over the year before, growing from just above 46 million viewers to 56.64 million. An even bigger jump came six years later, when Super Bowl XII rose 27 percent from the prior year to 78.94 million viewers.

The last big boost came in 1982, when, having declined some in the prior three years, Super Bowl XVI jumped to 85.24 million viewers, a 25 percent improvement on the 68.29 million for Super Bowl XV.

Since then, the smallest audience for the Super Bowl was 73.85 million for the aforementioned blowout in 1990. The audience made one more sizable jump three years later, rising 14 percent to 90.99 million; it hasn't fallen below 83 million since.

Whether the Super Bowl climbs back above the 100 million viewer average Sunday remains to be seen and will likely be determined by how entertaining (and close) the game turns out to be. Odds are, though, that it will fall into line with historical precedent. Even with infinitely more options for viewing than there were in the Super Bowl's early days, somewhere north of 60 percent of the TV-watching public will be watching the big game on Sunday.