ABC High On Super Bowl Ratings, Contest Or Not

There’s a real chance that Super Bowl XXIX on Jan. 29 will be the biggest massacre in the 28-year history of this blowout-heavy championship, but ABC Sports has been calmly downplaying the likelihood of diminished ratings for the game, which is traditionally the year’s top audience-grabber.

With the intra-California matchup – pitting the San Francisco 49ers against the San Diego Chargers – and the fact that the 49ers are more heavily favored than any team in the championship’s history, have helped create a slightly anxious air around the world’s most-hyped sports contest. In betting circles, the 49ers are favored to win by up to 20 points in the ABC telecast from Miami.

While kicking off the annual two-week media carnival leading up to the game, ABC Sports executive producer Jack O’Hara said that, despite the likely 49er dominance and the Chargers’ relative anonymity, the sheer size of the Super Bowl should carry the day.

“It’s the biggest TV event of the season, by far,” O’Hara said. “It shouldn’t be affected (by those factors) at all. The audience will be huge.”

Still, the Super Bowl is historically infamous for one-sided games, and several of ABC’s game announcers ruefully admit that there are other pairings they’d rather see this year. “Maybe we’ll be fortunate and get a good game,” said commentator Dan Dierdorf. “If we get a competitive game, we’ll be thrilled.”

“A lot of people feel San Diego really doesn’t have a chance,” added play-by-play man Al Michaels.

But Dennis Lewin, senior VP of production, echoed an ABC chorus of positive thinkers by noting that some of the biggest routs in the championship’s less-than-illustrious history were also some of the biggest ratings winners. “People as always will plan their whole day around this,” he said.

Last year’s Dallas Cowboys-Buffalo Bills Super Bowl generated a 45.5 rating and a 60 share for NBC; the game record is 49.1/73 on CBS in 1982, the fourth-highest-rated TV show ever, as the 49ers staged a dramatic last-minute win against the Cincinnati Bengals.

But the lowest-rated Super Bowl since 1970 also featured the 49ers, who drew a 39.0/63 while annihilating Denver 55-10 in 1990 on CBS.

‘Monday Night’ staff

ABC execs are confident that their “Monday Night Football” formula, now 25 years old, will be more than potent enough for the Super Bowl crowd. Thus, for the Big Game, the net will use the same production staff and on-air talent that have been carrying the Monday night franchise, and they’re promising that the game, rather than the announcers, will be the story (a small dig at the fledgling Fox Sports department and its flashy game style this season).

Asked about a rumor that shock-jock Howard Stern had been invited into the Super Bowl broadcast booth for a turn at the mike, O’Hara said, “That’s not the kind of distraction we’d allow during the game.”

Media buyers seem quietly confident about the game’s drawing power – which helped jack the price of 30-second spots above $1 million – but they have their misgivings too.

“The Super Bowl is the Super Bowl,” said one buyer. “My gut feeling is that interest will be down a bit, but the overall numbers will be pretty close. But if there’s a blowout, I’d hate to be an advertiser in the second half.”

“Last year was a huge blowout (Dallas, 30-13), and it still got a 45 rating,” added another. “And it’s preempting the schedule at the No. 1 network, so it won’t have to face the top shows. But let’s just say it’s not going to match the 1982 game.”

For the pre-game show, which historically has brought powerful lead-in ratings to the game itself, ABC will use original football-themed mini-programs based on three of the net’s primetime comedies, including the top-rated “Home Improvement.”

The ABC Sports staff is collaborating with the producers of “Home Improvement,” “Me and the Boys” and “Coach” to crank out 3-minute vignettes using the shows’ casts, all with football storylines, for the Jan. 29 Supercast from Miami.

Lotsa volunteers

ABC Sports exec producer Jack O’Hara said that “a number of shows volunteered” to be part of the pre-game action, but “we picked the best three concepts.” The “Home Improvement” bit, already shot, will feature several members of the Detroit Lions football team and “Home” star Tim Allen watching the pre-game hype together. The vignette from “Me and the Boys” is also completed, and the “Coach” bit is awaited.

ABC will lead in to the two-hour pre-game show with the Senior Professional Golfers Assn. tour “Skins Game,” a made-for-TV competition that’s been a mediocre ratings performer in the past. The event’s top showing in the past five years was a 5.9 rating/14 share in 1991; this year’s version includes four of the most famous senior golfers, including Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, competing for $540,000 in prizes, which should add to its built-in appeal as a Super Bowl prelude.

Last year’s Super Bowl coverage, from NBC, led off with a two-hour pre-game show that rose to an 18.3/36 in its last hour, following lead-ins from a National Basketball Assn. game and special, and an Olympic salute; the game itself peaked at 45.5/66. In 1991, the last time ABC forayed into the Super Bowl, the pre-game event climaxed at 32.1/55 in its last segment before kickoff; the game, an all-New York affair featuring the Giants and the Buffalo Bills, pulled a 41.9/63.

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