New England Rules Nielsen Roost

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The New England Patriots, in completing the best regular-season in National Football League history with their 38-35 triumph over the New York Giants on Saturday night, drew pro football's highest regular-season viewership in a dozen years.

The Dec. 29 telecast, during which the Patriots ran their mark to 16-0, tackled 34.5 million viewers, as it was showcased over an unprecedented three-network national simulcast, plus a trio of local stations. The average was the most for an NFL regular-season game since the Nov. 23, 1995 match-up between the Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys roped 35.7 million for NBC on Thanksgiving.

CBS set the primetime pace with some 15.7 million viewers, while NBC had 13.2 million. NFL Network -- whose telecast production, announcing team and halftime segment were carried by all of the TV partners -- grabbed 4.5 million viewers on average, according to Nielsen Media Research data. Meanwhile, WWOR in New York, WCVB in Boston and WMUR in Manchester, N.H. combined for 1.2 million, according to the NFL.

In what should have been the NFL Network’s marquee match, the audience for the league’s in-house network, which counts some 43 million subscribers, fell below the 4.6 million viewers it averaged with its other seven primetime contests this season.

With many cable operators sitting on the distribution sidelines owing to a dispute over license fee and positioning, the league evidently bowing to pressure from Washington and not wanting to deny its fan base a chance to see the Patriots’pursuit of perfection, announced on Dec. 26 that CBS and NBC, which reach all 113 million U.S. TV households, would join in the first three-network simulcast of an NFL contest.

NFL Network attracted a channel-best 10.1 million viewers to its Nov. 29 Thursday Night Football telecast of the Cowboys-Green Bay Packers in which America’s team team topped the Pack in a battle of then 10-1 clubs.

The Patriots have been ratings gold for NFL carriers this season, as their tilt with the Giants became the most-watched telecast of the 2007-08 TV season to date, supplanting the 33.8 million for CBS on Nov. 4 (mostly Pats-Indianapolis Colts), according to the league. CBS’s coverage of Pats-Pittsburgh Steelers, which went to most of the country, was third on Dec. 9 with 30.3 million viewers, ahead of the 29.1 million Black Rock notched for its (mostly) coverage of Pats-Cowboys on Oct. 14.

ESPN’s Monday Night Football presentation of the Patriots-Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 3 scored 17.5 million viewers, the most ever for a live telecast on cable, and second only to the 18.6 million that tuned in for Disney Channel’s  Aug. 17 premiere of High School Musical, when live (17.2 milion), plus seven-day viewers were factored in.  

The game saw New England add five other NFL records to its single regular-season win total of 16 -- 19 consecutive wins (breaking their own team mark bridging the 2003 and 2004 seasons); most points in a campaign (589, eclipsing the 556 scored by the 1998 Minnesota Vikings); most team TDs in a season (75, besting the 70 by the 1984 Miami Dolphins); most single-season TD passes (Tom Brady’s 50 topped Peyton Manning’s 49 in 2004); and single-season TD receptions (Randy Moss’s 23 edged out Jerry’s Rice’s 22 in the strike-shortened, 12-game 1987 campaign).

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