Feb. 6 contest could be most watched program ever

In a season in which the NFL has set new ratings records, the Super Bowl could break the biggest record of all.

With the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers clinching their berths Sunday, there’s feverish anticipation that the game could topple the record set by the 106.5 million who turned out for last year’s championship between Indianapolis and New Orleans. That game on CBS topped the 1983 finale of “MASH,” also on CBS, as TV’s most-watched program of all time.

The Steelers are among the league’s most popular teams, and few franchises have the tradition of the Packers — even if Brett Favre is no longer leading them. If the ratings for Sunday’s conference championship games are any indication, this Super Bowl should go through the roof. The Steelers’ 24-19 victory over the New York Jets drew a record 54.8 million for CBS, the most ever for an AFC championship. The Packers’ 21-14 win over the Chicago Bears scored 51.9 million viewers for Fox, marking the largest audience ever for the first game on a conference championship Sunday.

And those big turnouts come a week after an average of 35.1 million viewers watched NFL games, the most ever for an NFL divisional weekend and a 6% increase from last season (33 million viewers). The 35.1 million average surpasses the previous divisional record of 34.2 million in 1993.The NFL and Fox don’t like to play ratings prognosticator, but clearly the league is excited about this year’s history-rich Super Bowl matchup.

“We learned long ago to leave Super Bowl guarantees and predictions to Joe Namath,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. “We have a compelling matchup featuring two clubs with rich heritages and rabid national followings. The fact that they are among the smallest markets in sports won’t dampen viewership for what has become an unofficial American holiday.”

Fox is being careful not to raise expectations. Net doesn’t want to be seen calling anything less than a record-setting audience a ratings disappointment. The 2009 game on NBC between the Steelers and Arizona Cardinals drew 98.7 million, which was a record-setter at the time.

Ad time for this year’s game is going between $2.8 million-$3 million for a 30-second spot, a slight increase from a year ago.

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