CBS scored game's highest overnight rating in 23 years

In a season that has produced impressive ratings for event programming, the Super Bowl has dwarfed them all — and in so doing, broken a TV ratings record that stood for 27 years.

Viewership for CBS’ coverage of Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIV, in which the underdog New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts 31-17, has edged out the series finale of “MASH” on CBS in 1983 to become the largest-ever aud for a single-network telecast.

Nielsen estimates that an average aud of 106.5 million tuned in Sunday, topping the longstanding — and onetime seemingly unassailable — “MASH” record of 106 million. It’s also a healthy jump over the 98.7 million who watched last year’s Super Bowl between Pittsburgh and Arizona on NBC, which had established the Super Bowl record.Viewership peaked at 114.1 million from 9 to 9:30 p.m. ET, and Nielsen adds that roughly 153.4 million Americans watched at least six minutes of this year’s big game, also the largest such audience on record.

The whammo tune-in is not surprising given the ratings surge all season for America’s most popular sport.

The NFL’s primetime franchises on NBC and ESPN, as well as the afternoon packages on CBS and Fox, were all up by double-digit percentages vs. last year, and the Jan. 24 conference championship games that decided this year’s Super Bowl participants drew the best numbers in more than 20 years.

David Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS, thinks everything came together to create the monster Super Bowl ratings. And while a great game, a Cinderella storyline involving the Saints and bad weather in some parts of the country certainly boosted viewership, he also thinks there’s something else at work here.

“One of the ways the media works is in bringing together this concept of shared experience, and particularly in tough economic times, people really rally around these experiences,” Poltrack said. “Even though there are more and more (viewing) choices out there, certain things transcend just being television to become a phenomenon that we all crave to experience with others.”

He believes the National Football League deserves much of the credit too. “The NFL is the best at creating these moments and understanding the role they play in creating a community, whether it’s their charity work or in helping New Orleans rally.”

It’s also been an impressive season for another form of event programming — awards shows — as the Grammys, Country Music Assn. Awards, Golden Globe Awards and American Music Awards all spiked in the ratings. The Grammys, in particular, shot up 36% to hit a six-year high.

“It was a really strong year for music, which boosted the Grammys,” Poltrack said. “But these shows are only effective if they provide that shared experience.

“I think the Academy Awards have the right formula too with more movies, and moving away from movies that do less and less box office means more viewers can relate.”

Even at their highest, though, television’s top kudocasts and entertainment series only muster a fraction of the audience that tunes in for the Super Bowl.

Sunday’s 106.5 million, for example, is more than the combined viewership for the most recent Academy Awards, Grammy Awards and “American Idol” finale.

It’s also impressive that the NFL can generate such a big number for a game involving teams from smallish markets (Indianapolis is No. 25 nationally, New Orleans is No. 51). Sports leagues like Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Assn. tend to see ratings fluctuate for their championship rounds, with big-market teams like the Yankees or Lakers usually responsible for their highest Nielsens.

New Orleans delivered the largest local market score on Sunday (56.3 household rating/82 share), followed by Washington D.C. (56.0/73), Nashville (54.4/73), Indianapolis (54.2/80) and Columbus, Ohio (54.0/74).

In national households, this year’s preliminary 45.0 rating/68 share is 7% higher than last year (42.0/64) and is the best in 14 years (since 46.0/68 for Dallas-Pittsburgh on NBC in 1996). “MASH” still holds the all-time high in this category (60.2/77) — and it is unlikely to ever be toppled due to the multitude of viewing options these days.

As always, the commercials were an integral part of the Super Bowl experience. Nielsen BuzzMetrics revealed Monday that Doritos was the most buzzed-about advertiser during and after the game (11.0%), followed by Google (10.2%), Focus on the Family (9.6%) and Bud Light (7.5%).

Doritos also ranked atop TiVo’s list of “most engaging moments” during this year’s Super Bowl, which were measured by aggregated, anonymous, second-by-second audience measurement data about how subscribers watched the game. The potato chips giant was followed by Snickers and Focus on the Family, whose controversial ad aired in the first quarter.

Meanwhile, CBS also has reason to be pleased with the sampling for its new reality series “Undercover Boss,” whose 38.6 million viewers on Sunday makes it the largest-ever audience for a new show bowing behind the Super Bowl.

The first show from Studio Lambert can also claim the largest aud for the premiere of a reality series, and the third largest post-Super Bowl audience ever, behind only “Friends” on NBC in 1996 and the premiere of the second “Survivor” on CBS in 2001.

Beginning this week, “Undercover Boss” will follow “Amazing Race” on Sunday to form an 8 p.m.-10 p.m. reality block for CBS. And eventually, it will be “Boss” against Donald Trump when “Celebrity Apprentice” moves into the same 9 p.m. timeslot on NBC in March.

Detailed viewership figures for “Boss” and all Super Bowl programming, including demo breakdowns, will be released today by Nielsen.

ALL-TIME LARGEST TV AUDIENCES

Show channel year viewers (millions)

1. Super Bowl XLIV CBS 2010 106.5

(New Orleans-Indianapolis)

2. MASH finale CBS 1983 106.0

3. Super Bowl XLIII (Pittsburgh-Arizona) NBC 2009 98.7

4. Super Bowl XLII (NY Giants-New England) Fox 2008 97.4

5. Super Bowl XXX (Dallas-Pittsburgh) NBC 1996 94.1

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