Surprise surge spikes final tally

Turns out Sunday’s big football game was even more super in the ratings than first thought.

Nielsen Media Research on Tuesday reported a surprising surge in the nationals that make the Pittsburgh-Arizona matchup the most-watched sporting event on record. An estimated in-home audience of 98.73 million viewers watched the game, up 3% from the preliminary figure of 95.4 million issued Monday.

The final tally is also an improvement of 1% over last year’s then-record 97.45 million for the New York Giants-New England Patriots matchup. The last four Super Bowls have now averaged more than 90 million viewers, as the game remains far and away the biggest event on television.

And among all television programs, only the series finale of “MASH” on CBS in 1983 has drawn a larger average audience (106 million) than Sunday’s thriller.

An average aud of more than 106 million were watching during the final full quarter-hour of Sunday’s game (9:45-10 p.m. ET) when the Steelers won their sixth pro football championship by rallying in the final minute.

On Tuesday, there were no real explanations for the ratings surge. NBC had boasted Monday of delivering the second-largest average Super Bowl audience on record, but it turns out that it had an even better story to tell.

“Nielsen agrees that there was a problem that caused an enormous disparity in the preliminary and final numbers,” said Alan Wurtzel, NBC Universal president of research and media development. “They are looking into the problem. … but the final report card is accurate.”

It’s unusual for such a discrepancy to occur between the actual numbers and the early estimates, which are usually reliable to within 1% — especially when, as NBC did, a network requests special time-zone-adjusted preliminaries to account for the different hours in which the game aired in various parts of the country.

It was unclear if the scheduled upcoming digital transition was a factor. Last year Nielsen moved the February 2009 sweep to March due to concerns over the timely collection of its daily samples.

“As is standard procedure, yesterday’s early ‘fast national number’ was based on anticipated station coverage,” Nielsen said in a statement Tuesday. “The national overnight data released this morning was generated after we verified the stations carrying the game and are a more accurate reflection of the viewers.

“We are looking to see if there are any additional factors that had an impact on the difference between the early fast national ratings and national production ratings.”

Also Tuesday, Nielsen issued demos for Super Bowl XLIII. The game averaged a 36.7 rating/72 share in adults 18-49, down 2% in rating vs. last year but the second best in 10 years.

And in adults 18-34, the game’s 34.3/73 repped a 1% gain vs. last year and the best in 10 years.

The post-game entertainment, an hourlong episode of laffer “The Office,” averaged 22.91 million viewers overall and an 11.0 rating/28 in 18-49 — also rising about 3% from preliminary estimates on Monday.

In 18-49, “The Office” topped three of the last six post-game entertainment hours. And its rating among men 18-34 (14.3/37) is the second best for an hour following the Super Bowl in the last nine years.

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