With 111.9 Million Viewers, Super Bowl 50 Was the No. 3 Most-Watched of All Time

CBS topped 2013, but not Fox and NBC broadcasts in recent years

Last night's sloppy Super Bowl 50—which featured four fumbles and two interceptions—also might have caused CBS to fumble away its chance to have the highest-rated telecast of all time.

According to Nielsen's fast national ratings, the Denver Broncos-Carolina Panthers game was watched by an average of 111.9 million viewers, which makes it the third most-watched Super Bowl—and third most-watched U.S. program—in history.

CBS said viewership peaked between 8:30 and 9, when 115.5 million tuned in. CBS' Super Bowl livestream also attracted an average of 1.4 million viewers per minute.

While it beats CBS' ratings for its last Super Bowl in 2013—108.7 million—the total lags behind the most recent two games. Last year's Super Bowl on NBC drew 114.4 million total viewers, 49.7 million of them adults 18-49, and Fox's 2014 telecast was watched by 112.2 million (and 49.9 million in the demo).

Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports and executive producer of Super Bowl 50 coverage, had shied away from predicting record-breaking ratings, telling Adweek prior to the game that the network wasn't concerned about topping NBC's tally from last year. "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."

Ultimately, said McManus, "we're a little bit dependent upon the quality of the game. 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."

His words proved to be prescient: the Super Bowl often featured cringe-worthy play, though the Panthers stayed in the game until the final 4 minutes.

Prior to this year, Super Bowl ratings had 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—which also aired on CBS—when viewership fell to 108.7 million, down from 111.3 million the year before.

Another reason CBS was unconcerned about the game's final ratings is that the network was on track to make a record amount of Super Bowl ad revenue. Advertisers paid as much as $5 million per 30-second ad, and in the days before the game, CBS was in last-minute talks with advertisers, who they hoped would 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."

After the game, the special primetime (well, primetime-ish, given that it started close to 11) edition of Late Show with Stephen Colbert was watched by 21.1 million viewers, and averaged a 7.9 rating in adults 18-49. CBS says it's the largest Late Show audience of all time, and the biggest 18-49 demo since Letterman's first night in 1993. That audience is more than three times the 6.55 million who watched Colbert's Late Show debut in September.

"I want people to see an indicative show because I really like our show. And I don't want to bait and switch. If you like what you saw, tomorrow is going to be a different subject, but this is what you're going to get," Colbert told Adweek in last week's cover story.

Like the Super Bowl itself, those numbers are ahead of CBS' last post-Super Bowl show—Elementary was watched by 20.8 million in 2013, and a 7.8 demo rating—but a drop from the audiences for the two most-recent programs in that slot. Last year, The Blacklist was watched by 26.5 million (and did an 8.7 in 18-49), while New Girl drew 25.8 million (and an 11.1 demo rating) for Fox in 2014.

After local news, 5.0 million viewers (and a 1.7 in the demo) stuck around for The Late Late Show with James Corden, where Corden and Cindy Crawford hilariously recreated her iconic 1992 Super Bowl ad for Pepsi. CBS said it was the most-watched episode ever for The Late Late Show, which launched in 1995.

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