Super Bowl sets TV ratings record

Game draws 106.5 mil viewers, passing 'M*A*S*H' finale

In a stunning victory for the NFL and broadcast television, Super Bowl XLIV has become the most-watched TV program in U.S. history.

The New Orleans Saints' 31-17 upset of the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday drew 106.5 million viewers on CBS, smashing Super Bowl records and edging out 1983's "M*A*S*H" finale, which garnered 105.97 million viewers.

Viewership was up 8% from last year's Super Bowl, the Pittsburgh Steelers-Arizona Cardinals nail-biter that was seen by 98.7 million viewers, the game's previous record.

"With all the memorable story lines going into Super Bowl XLIV combined with the awesome power of the NFL, we are thrilled with this rating, and I am extremely proud of the way the entire CBS Television Network produced, sold and promoted the most-watched television show in history," CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus said.

Granted, the population has grown plenty from when the "M*A*S*H" finale aired, with the U.S. TV audience having climbed from 218 million viewers to 292 million. Yet today's audience also is much more specialized and segmented in terms of viewing habits -- cable penetration was only 34% in 1983 compared to 90% today. Most broadcast shows struggle to pull ratings that were commonplace just a few years ago.

Rob Yarin, senior vp programming at Magid Associates, said football in general and the Super Bowl in particular are uniquely suited to resist the corrosive forces that plague other types of programming.

"Who wants to watch the Super Bowl on their laptop?" Yarin said. "It's a big screen event. The primary purpose of the Super Bowl is to watch it live on television, and that's why you're seeing these huge ratings."

The game also capped a hugely successful season for the NFL.

"The NFL is the perfect television property," McManus said. "The rest keeps getting fractionalized and the NFL keeps getting more appealing to viewers. It's hard to explain the phenomena."

CBS research head David Poltrack gave it a shot. Poltrack said that -- like award shows such as the Grammys and Golden Globes, which have recently seen a ratings revival -- the Super Bowl qualifies as a "shared experience event."

"We all seek ways to identify with other people," he said. "All of our online activity is isolating, and there's a growing need for connection, particularly in economically hard times. You can participate in the Super Bowl at any economic level."

Perhaps viewers can afford to participate. But what about broadcasters?

With NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics projected to lose money for the first time and the BCS Championship moving to ESPN, big-ticket sporting events are getting tougher for broadcasters to afford. Cable networks, which have a dual revenue stream from advertising and subscribers, are potentially better poised to capture key events in the future.

"There is a concern as we see the migration more toward the cable sector," Poltrack said. "We have to make sure we deliver the greatest value we can. That's why we do everything in our power to find an economic model that works and, fortunately, with the Super Bowl, that model has been discovered."

"We'll figure out how to keep paying for it as long as it keeps delivering ratings like this," he added.

Sunday night's premiere of CBS' latest reality show, "Undecover Boss," likewise scored for the network, drawing 38.6 million viewers -- the largest audience for a new series following the Super Bowl and the most-watched reality series premiere ever.

Yet for some, Super Ratings Sunday wasn't all that surprising given the "perfect storm" of elements coming together, which included snowstorms in the Northeast that encouraged viewers to stay home.

"It's not surprising," said Bill Carroll, vp director of programming at Katz TV Group. "When you have a once-a-year event, particularly suited to HD, with little to no competition on broadcast or cable, while in this economy it's mostly watched from home, with a blizzard on the East Coast, it would be more surprising if the game did not set a record."