Even though CBS is downplaying its expectations, Sunday's broadcast of Super Bowl 50 is likely to be the most-watched U.S. broadcast in terms of total viewers. But there's less of a chance the game will break any records in the 18-to-49 demo.
Super Bowl ratings vacillated wildly during the '80s and '90s—from as low as 68.2 million to as high as 92.5 million—but have been on a steady climb for the past 10 years, with almost every game outrating the one before it, according to Nielsen. The only exception was 2013, when viewership fell to 108.7 million, down from 111.3 million the year before. That gives CBS an excellent chance to grab the title Sunday away from last year's game, which drew 114.4 million viewers, the largest U.S. TV audience ever.
While Super Bowl ratings have soared in the past decade, its 18-to-49 audience has remained relatively flat. According to Nielsen, that audience peaked with Fox's 2011 game, which averaged 52.5 million in the demo. But it has hovered around the 50 million mark since 2008, with last year's game drawing 49.7 million 18- to 49-year-old viewers.
Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports and executive producer of CBS's Super Bowl 50 coverage, told Adweek as part of this week's Super Bowl cover story he doesn't care if the game doesn't break ratings records. "That's more of an industry thing than anything else," he said. "Basically, it's bragging rights, and if you don't get it, it's still going to be the most-watched telecast of the year."
Not every network agrees: Last year, an NBC exec told Adweek that "it would be a huge disappointment" if his network's Super Bowl wasn't "the most-watched show in the history of television." (In the end, of course, it was.)
Another reason CBS is unconcerned about the final ratings is that it's on track to make a record amount of Super Bowl ad revenue. (Advertisers have paid as much as $5 million per 30-second ad, and those who are still talking with CBS about getting in at the last minute will likely shell out even more than that.)
"From a financial impact, it's immaterial because none of the sponsors are guaranteed," McManus said. "We always hit the minimum threshold anyway."
In the end, whether the Super Bowl breaks the record could come down to how close the game is between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos. "We're a little bit dependent upon the quality of the game," McManus said. "If it's a great game that goes down to the last play, I think we'll do an outstanding rating. Even if not, we'll still do a big rating."
That ratings could go particularly high if Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, playing in what could be the last NFL game of his storied career, ends up winning the Super Bowl. "This year, more so than other years, you might have this amazing storybook ending, meaning Peyton Manning," said Dan Donnelly, evp and managing director for sports at SMG. "So, if Denver pulls this out and he wins, I can't even imagine what that rating and postgame rating would be,"
Regardless of what the final ratings are, they will reinforce the Super Bowl's dominance as TV's premier showcase for brands. "I've always believed that the Super Bowl is the best opportunity for a marketer to engage an audience," Donnelly said. "It is the grandest stage, with a captive audience that is there to watch not only the game itself, but to watch the commercials. And I think that's as exciting an opportunity for a marketer as you can get."