The Big Game Goes for a Record

Super Bowl’s viewership numbers have been on a roll — but will the Saints set them back?

Could Super Bowl XLIV become the  most-watched Super Bowl in history? With game time less than a week away (Feb. 7, CBS), the answer to that question is being debated among analysts and researchers. Some believe the mix of this year’s huge, post-season NFL ratings coupled with spreading HDTV technology and a population focused on cheaper forms of entertainment (it doesn’t get any cheaper than free TV) could indeed drive the game to new heights. It could even surpass, they say, the 98.7 million viewers that tuned in last year, the game’s largest audience ever and the second largest for any TV broadcast.

Toon van Beeck, senior industry analyst with market research company IBISWorld, predicted that the game would average 100 million viewers this year, up a little more than 1 percent over last year’s record. Viewership, for one, he noted, has been steadily rising since 2005. “There are a lot of factors pointing to another record-breaking year,” he said.

Brad Adgate, svp, director of research at Horizon Media, said he believes the game will “do at least 100 million and, if it’s a close game like the last two, it could even compete with … M*A*S*H as the most-watched TV show ever.” The long-running CBS sitcom garnered 106 million viewers during its final episode in 1983.

Adgate cited the ratings for the two conference championship games played on Jan. 24 to back up his prediction. The National Football Conference title game, between the Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints (on Fox), garnered its best ratings in 28 years with an audience of 58 million viewers. And on CBS the same day, the American Football Conference match-up between the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Jets drew almost 47 million viewers, making it the most-watched AFC championship telecast in 24 years.

Adgate also said that the growing penetration of HDTV sets — now in a third of U.S. homes, per Nielsen — is contributing to the growing popularity of sports.

He cited a Nielsen statistic indicating that sports viewing was 21 percent higher in homes with HDTV sets last year compared to the overall sports viewing average.

Others, however, feel this year’s Super Bowl won’t break any records, especially because the Vikings were knocked out by the Cinderella Saints, which don’t have the Viking’s strong national following or its  aging star squarterback, Brett Favre.

Veteran TV audience analyst Steve Sternberg agreed that the odds are against this year’s game setting an audience record given that “despite what many in the press seem to think, New Orleans does not have as big a national following as Minnesota.”

A CBS source said the company wouldn’t comment publicly about the prospects of its network’s coverage setting any records. Privately, one insider said the “dream contest,” given the list of this year’s playoff contenders, would have been Indianapolis against Minnesota. But even without it, an audience of 100 million is feasible.

As for beating M*A*S*H? “Stay tuned,” the network source said.


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