With 589 points and 75 touchdowns, the 2007 New England Patriots became the most prolific-scoring team in NFL history. If they beat the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, the Pats will finish with a best-ever 19-0 mark, erasing the 1972 Miami Dolphins and their 17-0 signature from the record book.
Why not cap the perfect campaign with another record in hand — crossing the 100 million average viewer threshold?
That’s the kind of gridiron and Nielsen history coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady’s band of Patriots will chase Sunday in Super Bowl XLII. Or, as I prefer to call it, Super Bowl 100M (go ahead and check out some Roman numeral Web sites, and see if you can find a way to easily type/express that figure).
Can the Pats-Giants get there?
The all-time NFL championship game viewership record was recorded by NBC on Jan. 28, 1996. Super Bowl XXX, in which the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-17, tackled some 94.1 million viewers on average, according to Nielsen Media Research data.
Last year’s CBS’s coverage of Super Bowl XLI, the Indianapolis Colts’s 29-17 mauling of the Chicago Bears, ranks second with 93.1 million viewers, a total bolstered by the ever-expanding U.S. population and TV household universe.
By comparison, Super Bowl XVI, the first of Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers’ wins over the Cincinnati Bengals back in 1982, notched the highest-ever rating for the Big Game at a 49.1, translating into 85 million viewers for Black Rock. Last year’s contest scored a 42.0 rating.
The Patriots-Giants Super Bowl could do much better, based on the returns we’ve seen thus far.
Admire their matter-of-fact efficiency, or despise their arrogance, but Belichick, likened to the legendary Vince Lombardi; Brady, with his NFL single-season record with 50 TD tosses; and Randy Moss, who established his own mark with 23 scoring receptions; are ratings gold.
All four of the most-viewed regular-season NFL games in 2007 — three on CBS — involved New England: Oct. 14 versus Dallas (29.1 million); the Nov. 4 match against the then-defending champion Colts (33.8 million); and the Dec. 9 confrontation with Pittsburgh (30.3 million).
No small wonder, CBS executives talk about the “Patriot premium.”
Moreover, the Dec. 3 Monday Night Football match-up, in which the Pats eked out a last-minute win against the Baltimore Ravens, was the most-watched live show in ESPN and cable history, capturing 17.5 million viewers. (Factoring live, plus seven-day data, sister service’s Aug. 17 premiere of telefilm High School Musical2 eclipsed the game with 18.6 million watchers)
However, it was the Dec. 29 primetime regular-season finale in which the Patriots beat the Giants 38-35 that set the standard. An unprecedented simulcaston CBS, NBC and NFL Network — after the league’s in-house network could not come to carriage terms with a number of cable operators — lured 34.5 million viewers, with a 24 rating/40 share in New York and a 50.1/75 share in Boston. The overall audience was the most for an NFL regular-season contest since 35.7 million watched the Cowboys-Kansas City Chiefs on Thanksgiving 1995.
Those strong regular-season performances set the stage for playoff viewership paydirt. Led by Fox’s 40.1 million for G-men-’Boys, the four divisional playoff games averaged 32.7 million, up 9% from last year and the most for the equivalent round since January 1996, according to Nielsen.
The semifinals — Pats-San Diego Chargers (44.8 million for CBS) and Green Bay Packers-G-men (53.9 million for Fox) — averaged 49.7 million viewers, making it the most-viewed conference championship combo since 1994, when Chargers-Steelers (41.9 million for NBC) and Cowboys-San Francisco 49ers (56.8 million for Fox) played as big.
It should be noted that the 1994 contests kicked off at 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., respectively, rather than the more-viewer-friendly windows of 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. for this year’s set. Measured against their 2007 time-period counterparts, this year’s AFC championship grew 3% over Bears-New Orleans Saints, while the NFC title tilt improved 15% from Colts-Pats.
In fact, New York’s 23-20 OT triumph on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field Jan. 20 was the most-watched, non-Super Bowl program since NBC grabbed 76.3 million watchers with the Seinfeld finale on May 14, 1998.
Still, some argue that Fox would have been better off with either Dallas or Green Bay, squads with bigger national followings, in the game. Those are valid points. Tony Romo and Cowboys are America’s team, even if No. 9 isn’t Jessica Simpson’s signal-caller of choice any more. And outside of Giants supporters, how many football fans wouldn’t have preferred watching gilded gunslinger Brett Favre in maybe his last roundup, a rematch of Super Bowl XXXI (won by the Pack).
But the Giants are no slouches themselves. After all Eli — not big brother, pitchman and Indy QB Peyton– Manning, prognosticator Plaxico Burress, and that un-retiring type Michael Strahan, represent New York, the No. 1 Nielsen market (and baseball town) with some 7.4 million homes.
Boston/Manchester ain’t bad either: seventh at just under 2.4 million.
Yet, naysayers argue the game is too northeast-centric. But other TV executives point out that Super Bowls rack up ratings in the low 40s, no matter what the teams’ geography. And while there may be more to do in the Apple and Beantown — than say Cheeseheads watching the Pack in Green Bay (just under 426,000 TV homes) — the potential upside of the participants’ viewing fields favors Fox.
Of course, having the 12-point underdog Giants get off to a fast start would be conducive to the Nielsen quest. A close score should goose the numbers.
Fox executives, though, after studying ratings metrics of the last 15 Super Bowls, want to play myth-buster — relative to the notion that lop-sided games result in fourth-quarter viewer exodus.
Instead, they say that in Super Bowls from 1992 through 2007, viewership, on average, rose in each stanza. “It’s evolved into such an event,” said a Fox exec. “That’s not a typical viewing pattern.”
The contention being: People, having made their plans for what has become a de facto national holiday, settle in for the duration of the game, halftime show, hospitality and commercials, not to mention the beer, guacamole and to see how their boxes and bets play out.
If you’ve hosted some of these affairs, well, you know, it often can be tough to get some of the stragglers to leave, even after the whistle has sounded on the post-game interviews.
Still, generating a 6-million viewer increase over Super Bowl XXX’s tally – and double that total based on the average of the last 10 games – may be asking a lot, even of the Patriots and their followers.
The Super Bowl, which always attracts a ton of casual viewers, will have to bring a lot more to its XLII party. Wintry weather nationwide would be helpful. The more people inside, the better chance there will be increased tune-in to witness either the historic coronation of the Greatriots, or share in the schadenfreude a New England loss would trigger for those who prefer the Hatriots moniker.
For its part, Fox’s game plan has been to sidestep the 100 million viewer question. Fox Sports president Ed Goren, on a conference call this week, responded to a query about whether the network would be disappointed by less than a 50 rating, by saying: “In today’s world I don’t think you can get a rating of 50. But I think if the game is competitive it will be one of the most-watched television shows ever. So I think viewership could be right up there in the top five of all-time shows, but ratings, no.”
Fair enough on the ratings watch — there are more channel and other entertainment options (the WGA strike notwithstanding) than ever before. Yet, the 100 million average could fall.
Take the over there, but the under versus Hawkeye Pierce and the men and women of M*A*S*H. The series finale on CBS on Feb. 28, 1983 is TV’s all-time viewership king with a Nielsen-estimated 105.9 million viewers.