Super ratings make TV history
• Photo gallery: Super Bowl XLIV
By David Bauder
NEW YORK — The New Orleans Saints' victory over Indianapolis in the Super Bowl was watched by more than 106 million people, surpassing the 1983 finale of "M*A*S*H" to become the most-watched program in U.S. television history, the Nielsen Co. said yesterday.
Compelling story lines involving the city of New Orleans and its ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the attempt at a second Super Bowl ring for Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning propelled the viewership. Football ratings have been strong all season.
"It was one of those magical moments that you don't often see in sports," said Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports.
Nielsen estimated yesterday that 106.5 million people watched Sunday's Super Bowl. The "M*A*S*H" record was 105.97 million.
The viewership estimate obliterated the previous record viewership for a Super Bowl — last year's game between Arizona and Pittsburgh. That game was seen by 98.7 million people, Nielsen said.
The "M*A*S*H" record has proven as durable and meaningful in television as Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs was in baseball until topped by Hank Aaron. Ultimately, it may be hard to tell which program was really watched by more people. There's a margin for error in such numbers, and Nielsen's estimate was preliminary, and could change with a more thorough look at data due today.
"It's significant for all of the members of the broadcasting community," said Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp. CEO. "For anyone who wants to write that broadcasting is dead, 106 million people watched this program. You can't find that anywhere else."
Moonves predicted CBS will earn more in advertising revenue than in any other Super Bowl. The good ratings for the game and football in general also set CBS and other football broadcasters up well when selling advertising for next season, he said.
The Nielsen estimate also drew some congratulations from Alan Alda, the star of "M*A*S*H."
"If the 'M*A*S*H' audience was eclipsed, it was probably due in large part to the fact that the whole country is rooting for New Orleans to triumph in every way possible," Alda said. "I am, too, and I couldn't be happier for them. I love that city."
There are more American homes with television sets now (114.9 million) than there were in 1983 (83.3 million). An estimated 77 percent of homes with TVs on were watching "M*A*S*H" in 1983, compared with the audience share of 68 for the Super Bowl.
Nielsen also measures only the United States, and it's possible some World Cup soccer games were seen more worldwide. Accurate measurement of television audiences outside the United States is spotty at best.
Alda also wondered whether the numbers were too close to declare a new champion. He thinks Nielsen didn't take into account large numbers of people watching "M*A*S*H" communally, which is often the case for football games, too.
"Not to say I'm competitive, but in part we are talking about sports," he said. "And I actually AM competitive."
McManus didn't want to jinx it, but the abnormally strong viewership for football this year left him hoping for a record. The NFC and AFC championship games both had their biggest audiences since the 1980s. The growth of high-definition television and its appeal to sports fans has also helped.