Big game gives Fox giant audience

Sunday’s Super Bowl turned out to be a record-setter after all.

The New England Patriots’ attempt to become the first NFL team to finish the season undefeated in 35 years may not have panned out, but the upset victory by the New York Giants drew the largest average audience on record for a sporting event.

Nielsen estimates that an average aud of 97.5 million viewers watched on Fox as the Giants defeated the Patriots 17-14. Contest, which aired from 6:31 to 10:12 p.m. ET, was close throughout, with tune-in peaking at about 107 million near 10 o’clock ET, when Eli Manning connected with Plaxico Burress on the go-ahead touchdown.

Game eclipsed the previous record for a Super Bowl, which was the 94.08 million for the Dallas-Pittsburgh contest on NBC in January 1996, and among all programs trails only the 105.97 million for the series finale of “MASH” on CBS in 1983.

Last year’s Indianapolis-Chicago matchup on CBS, which averaged 93.18 million, now stands as the No. 3 Super Bowl of all time.

Population increases certainly help more recent Super Bowls, although there are many more viewing options than there were in decades past. It’s also worth noting that Nielsen’s estimates include only in-home viewing, so the millions of Americans watching in places like sports bars or airports aren’t included.

The household rating for this year’s game — a preliminary 43.3/65 share — reps the best for the Super Bowl in 11 years (since a 44.5/67 for Green Bay-Denver on NBC).

Game did a monster 81 share in the Boston area and a 67 share in Gotham.

In adults 18-49, the game averaged a 37.6 rating — the biggest for a Super Bowl in eight years and the second highest ever for a Fox telecast, behind only its first Super Bowl in 1997 (Green Bay-New England).

The postgame show from 10:12-10:38 p.m. ET averaged a 26.6 rating in adults 18-49 and 63.9 million viewers overall, according to Nielsen prelims.

And at 10:38 p.m. ET, a special episode of medical drama “House” set series records with a 12.9 rating in the demo and 29 million viewers overall. Episode was the highest-rated scripted program on television since the post-Super Bowl airing of “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC two years ago.

Compared with last year’s post-Super Bowl episode of “Criminal Minds” on CBS, “House” performed 29% better in 18-49 (12.8 vs. 9.9) and 11% better among total viewers (29.0 million vs. 26.1 million).

When Nielsen releases national averages for the week today, Fox is expected to generate the highest 18-49 rating and total-viewers average for any net in 11½ years, and the largest advantage over the second-place net in at least 17 years.

Opposite the Super Bowl on Sunday, no program did better than a 3 share in 18-49. In fact, the only two programs that did a 3 share — repeats of movie “Meet the Fockers” on ABC and drama “Cold Case” on CBS — were shows that aired in the 10 o’clock hour and picked up viewers after the game ended.

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