Believe the experts, and it was — if you excuse the expression — a perfect storm of influences that turned Sunday's Super Bowl into the most-watched telecast in U.S. television history, drawing an average audience of 106.5 million viewers in 51.7 million households.
Everything from a competitive football season with steadily climbing TV viewership to a mid Atlantic snowstorm stranding many indoors got credit for Sunday's gargantuan numbers. The figure beat the 105.9 million for the final episode of beloved CBS sitcom M*A*S*H in 1983. (Locally, nearly 1.4 million people 18 and older watched the Super Bowl on WTSP-Ch. 10).
Look down the list of most popular telecasts, and the next 13 are Super Bowls, with a night from the 1994 Winter Olympics, when the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal was highest, tossed in. A scripted show doesn't surface until No. 15, Cheers' 1993 finale.
The lesson? Sports, especially pro football, seems to be the last great event bringing Americans together around a TV set.
"It just reaffirms the NFL is the biggest entertainment property in the United States," said Neil Pilson, a sports media consultant and former president of CBS Sports, noting that the game's success might nudge NFL players and owners into resolving contract disputes that could threaten the 2011 season. "In an era of ever-increasing options (for viewers), the major sports properties stand out like beacons."
Robert Seidman of the ratings Web site TVBytheNumbers,com, also noted the Super Bowl boasted a powerful matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints and a well-played game that was competitive until the last quarter.
Critics groused about the ads, saying most were too mediocre, vulgar or overexposed; and there may have been too many, with a record 48 minutes devoted to commercials, according to research firm Kantar Media. But the Saints' victory proved as thrilling as any CSI episode, toppling the conventional wisdom of the ads being more entertaining than a typically lopsided Super Bowl game.
"The big winner here was probably Fox, which has the Super Bowl next year, and the NFL — they've had three Super Bowls where the games were good," said Seidman, noting that casual fans tuning in for the commercials may have found the actual athletes more compelling. "I'd say the real winner here is probably sports fans."
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. Follow him online at the Feed, blogs.tampabay.com/media.