34.5 million gain in NFL handoff

Multi-net Pats-Giants game most-watched since '95

Saturday night's simulcast New England Patriots-New York Giants game pushed past this year's Patriots-Indianapolis Colts thriller to become the most-watched regular-season NFL game since 1995.

At least 34.5 million people tuned in to see the game on its various outlets, according to preliminary estimates released Sunday by Nielsen Media Research. That tops everything since the Thanksgiving 1995 Kansas City Chiefs-Dallas Cowboys game that averaged 35.7 million viewers. It also was ahead of CBS' 33.8 million viewers for the Nov. 4 Patriots-Colts game that kept the Patriots undefeated.

Saturday's game not only gave the Patriots the NFL's first 16-0 undefeated season but it also was the first time since Super Bowl I in the mid-1960s that an NFL game was simulcast on more than one network. It also was available on three channels in New York (the local CBS and NBC O&Os plus Fox Television Stations' Channel 9) and all three of the Big Three in Boston (CBS, NBC and ABC).

CBS averaged 15.7 million viewers for Saturday's game, which was the largest share of any of the networks simulcasting the game. NBC averaged about 13.1 million viewers, with 4.5 million viewers for the NFL Network nationwide and the rest spread across the three over-the-air channels in the New York and Boston markets (WWOR, WCVB and WMUR).

The game was historic for many reasons, and the NFL took full advantage of the nationwide platform to bring its case to football fans shut out of the NFL Network because of the carriage battle between the league and big MSOs like Time Warner Cable and Cablevision. The NFL Network mentioned early and often their ongoing dispute, beginning with a sideline interview with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Goodell demurred on whether the NFL could resolve its dispute with major cable operators.

"We believe that there's great demand for the NFL Network and we believe there's a great demand for football, and we're committed to make that happen," he said. "But that's for another day. Tonight is for the fans." He added that the NFL team owners remained committed to the NFL Network.

But there were more than 10 mentions of the NFL Network and how fans could ask for it — IWantMyNFLNetwork.com was flashed on the screen — including a commercial naming Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Cablevision.

The halftime show devoted a minute to what host Rich Eisen called a primer to the network's four years. "If you don't get us, you're missing out," he said. "I'm not saying, I'm just saying."

Because it was an NFL Network simulcast that they paid nothing to carry — compared with the many millions the networks pay for the rights to televise their own games — CBS and NBC likely looked the other way when it came to the NFL Network's jabs against cable. Neither network blinked.

NFL Network COO Kimberly Williams said Sunday that the decision to simulcast the Patriots-Giants game wasn't about NFL Network distribution but instead about bringing fans the game.

"Once the decision was made, we saw this as a good opportunity to talk to NFL fans and show them what we have to offer, not the game telecasts but what we have to offer year-round to football fans, which is obviously a pretty large and passionate group of fans," she said. "It certainly was in our interest to support the network and our current affiliated partners."