Steelers Win Big Ratings (Give Or Take Tucson)

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A whopping 95.4 million people watched the Pittsburgh Steelers' dramatic win over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII -- the second-most-watched Super Bowl broadcast ever and the third-most-watched broadcast in U.S. television history.

Sunday's game, in which the Steelers won their record sixth Super Bowl, was just 2 million viewers shy of last year's championship.

That's a surprisingly strong showing, given that last year, the New York Giants upset the undefeated New England Patriots in the final minute. Almost as many people were glued to this year's game, which the favored Steelers won, 27-23, in the final minute.

The broadcast was even more riveting in areas of Tucson, where Comcast threw about 30 seconds of porn into the final minutes. "Mortified" is how Comcast describes its reaction to what it's calling a "Super Bowl interruption," which the cable company has sworn to get to the bottom of, adding that its initial investigation suggests "an isolated malicious act."

NBC boasted that 147 million viewers sampled at least six minutes of the game. That's a "reach" number, which is relevant to advertisers because it's assumed you run into an ad break if you watch as little as six minutes of the broadcast.

The 95.4 million, however, is the average audience at any given minute during the game. It's the number that goes in the record books, and it's the number you compare against the never-been-topped 106 million viewers who watched the series finale of "M*A*S*H" in 1983.

After the game wrapped, about 22 million viewers stuck around to watch a Very Special one-hour episode of NBC's Thursday comedy "The Office." Although that's the smallest prime-time post-Super Bowl broadcast since 2002 -- and it pales next to the biggest post-Super Bowl crowd of nearly 53 million who watched "Friends" after NBC's broadcast of Super Bowl XXX (94.07 million viewers) in 1996 -- it's still "The Office's" biggest audience ever by a factor of two.

It's also NBC's biggest audience for an entertainment telecast since an "ER" episode that followed the series finale of "Frasier." Yes, that long ago -- 4 1/2 years. There was much cause for celebration at the Peacock Network yesterday.

"Recording the two biggest Super Bowl audiences in history in two consecutive years proves that the NFL is stronger than ever," NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol gushed in a prepared statement.

"The National Football League should feel a great sense of pride in providing a day of enjoyment to American families -- especially those who are struggling in these difficult times," he added.

Not all Super Bowl-viewing families were so euphoric. Those catching the game in Tucson via Comcast's analog feed had their game interrupted twice by pornography.

Actually, the first bit of porn was pretty tame stuff: the closing credits of a flick on adult channel Club Jenna. But a few minutes later, right after the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald scored on that long pass to put his team ahead, unsuspecting Tucson viewers were suddenly confronted with about 30 seconds of a woman unzipping a man's pants and his showing off his male pride. That clip seemed to be coming from Shorteez, which we've been assured is an adult cable television channel.

Gary Nielsen, general manager of Tucson's NBC-affiliated station KVOA, told the TV Column that no calls of complaint came from people watching its over-the-air signal and no calls were from viewers watching via DirecTV, Dish Network or Cox -- the larger cable provider in the Tucson market. All calls emanated from Comcast analog viewers.

"I have told Comcast they need to get a response to their subscribers and our viewers as to what happened," Nielsen said. "It didn't happen on our watch, but it's got our call letters on it. This station has been on the air more than half a century and we can't go down that road."

Late yesterday, Comcast issued an updated statement, changing its official emotion, in re Tucson porn ambush, from "mortified" to "appalled," and downgraded the results of its initial investigation from "suggests this was an isolated malicious act" to "may have been an isolated, malicious act."

"We are appalled by last evening's Super Bowl interruption," Comcast said in its latest missive. "The Super Bowl is a family-viewing event, and last night was even more special here in Arizona as we were all cheering for the Cardinals."

Yesterday afternoon, a Comcast rep told the TV Column that the company plans to compensate its analog customers for the porn ambush but did not elaborate. The details came later:

"We can't undo what happened, but we remain deeply sorry for the impact this situation has had on our customers," Comcast said late yesterday.

So just how sorry is the behemoth system operator? Ten bucks' worth:

"We will be issuing a $10 credit to any Comcast video customer in Tucson who was impacted. While this credit won't change what happened, we hope that it will demonstrate to our customers, and to the Tucson community, how seriously we are taking this situation."

You betcha it does!

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