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Super Bowl's Big Score: 97.5 Million Viewers

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The undefeated New England Patriots may have flamed out in the final minutes of Sunday's game against the New York Giants, but a record was set nonetheless when the broadcast clocked 97.5 million viewers to become the most watched Super Bowl ever.

The game was the Fox network's match made in heaven: the team from the country's No. 1 TV market in a fight to the finish to block the Patriots from becoming the NFL's first undefeated team since 1972 and the first ever to achieve a 19-0 record (the '72 Miami Dolphins won the Super Bowl to polish off a 17-0 record).

Sunday's crowd edged out the previous record of 94.08 million when Dallas sacked Pittsburgh at the '96 Super Bowl.

But, despite its made-for-TV back story and the fact that there are 70 million more people in the country than in 1983, the Patriots-Giants game couldn't touch the '83 broadcast of the "M*A*S*H" finale, which remains the most watched broadcast in U.S. television history, with an average of 106 million viewers.

For ratings purists, a.k.a. ratings wonks, who believe we should compare household ratings instead of numbers of viewers -- just because the country's population keeps growing -- this year's game is not a record, though it's the highest rated since 1997.

Household ratings measure the percentage of the country's homes with TVs tuned in to a show. On Sunday, 43.3 percent of TV homes were watching the Super Bowl between 6:31 and 10:12 p.m., and 65 percent of the TV sets in use were tuned to the game.

In local markets, 81 percent of TV sets turned on in the Boston area, where the Patriots are based, were watching the game, while in Giants' more jaded home of New York, only 67 percent were tuned in.

Household-ratings-wise, the record holder is still the January '82 Super Bowl between San Francisco and Cincinnati, which was watched by 49.1 percent of the country's television homes -- and on a whopping 73 percent of TVs that were actually in use. That game logged an average of 85 million viewers, Nielsen says.

A company advertising on that broadcast got quite a bargain: Ads sold for about $324,000 per 30 seconds in those days. The ads on Sunday's game went for $2.7 million per 30-second spot.

Speaking of Super Bowl ads, most polls and studies, including one conducted by Nielsen Media Research, concluded the ad you liked best was the one featuring Hank the Clydesdale, working with his personal trainer Dalmatian to get in shape to join the team that pulls the Budweiser beer wagon, while the "Rocky" theme plays in the background.

On the other hand, the most TiVoed Super Bowl ads, according to Nielsen, were the E-Trade commercial in which the baby trader pukes, and the Pepsi ad in which a mailbox does to Justin Timberlake what Janet Jackson would like to do to him for the way he bailed on her during the outrage that erupted last time he appeared during a Super Bowl -- the halftime show in which he ripped her costume to reveal her right breast.

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CBS late-night host Craig Ferguson told his audience last night he's been tapped to perform at this year's White House Correspondents' Association dinner, which will be held on April 26.

The Scottish comic, whose show follows David Letterman's in CBS's late-night lineup, was sworn in as a U.S. citizen on Friday.

"I thought as soon as I became an American I was going to get jury duty," Ferguson said last night, "or the CIA was going to get in touch and get me to assassinate a foreign head of state." But his "first job as an American citizen" is the dinner, he said. "It's like the Oscars for politicians. . . . I sit at the top table with the president and the first lady. Does he know I can't be kicked out now?"

Asking Ferguson to entertain the crowd represents a cautious dipping of a toe back into this decade for the White House press corps, which last year ran like a frightened gazelle back to the '60s, choosing Rich Little to entertain after being stung by criticism that the clambake's 2006 "get," Stephen Colbert, had gone too far in comparing the Bush administration to the Hindenburg disaster, among his many zingers.

The closest to "topical" Little got was when one of his jokes bombed and he ad-libbed, "And you thought Colbert was bad!"

Ferguson's no Colbert, who's best known for his tongue-in-cheek impression of a right-wing nut-job talk-show host on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" (a show apparently not watched by the White House press corps). But, compared with Little -- who for last year's dinner dusted off his Smurf jokes and impersonations of dead men Johnny Carson and Richard Nixon -- Ferguson verges on George Carlin.

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