The TV Column: Lisa de Moraes on record Super Bowl ratings

By Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mother Nature and the Saints bestowed a TV ratings record on Super Bowl XLIV.

Nielsen reports that 106.5 million people watched underdog New Orleans Saints win the Miami showdown with the Indianapolis Colts -- scoring CBS the largest audience in TV history.

That crowd handily beats the 99 million who watched the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals at last year's Super Bowl on NBC.

More historically, Sunday's game also beat the series finale of "M*A*S*H," which had, for nearly 27 years, held the record as the most-watched broadcast in U.S. television history.

The two-hour final episode of CBS's iconic antiwar series, which starred Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce, attracted an average audience of 106 million (105.97 million, to be precise).

"It speaks to how great broadcast television is," CBS CEO Leslie Moonves told The TV Column on Tuesday. "The Super Bowl is like a national holiday, and it was even more so this year, because of New Orleans being in it. People want to share communal experiences."

He noted that the Super Bowl ratings spike comes on the heels of noticeably improved numbers for the Golden Globe and Grammy trophy-show broadcasts. "That speaks volumes about Americans wanting to feel connected again," Moonves said.

But CBS owes a big wet kiss to The Heavens Above, which rendered millions of potential viewers housebound Sunday night with a weekend snowstorm that buried the mid-Atlantic region.

With all due respect to the Saints and the Super Bowl, the "M*A*S*H" finale is still the more impressive ratings feat, because when the show signed off the air on Feb. 28, 1983, the country had about 75 million fewer people than it did on Sunday. (The Census Bureau puts the current population at 308 million.)

That "M*A*S*H" finale, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," gripped a substantially larger percentage of the American public than did Sunday's game. More than 60 percent of U.S. homes tuned in to say goodbye to "M*A*S*H," while 45 percent of U.S. homes tuned in to watch the Saints embarrass the Colts on Sunday -- which is not even a Super Bowl viewing record, just the best in 14 years. The '96 Super Bowl, between Dallas and Pittsburgh, attracted 46 percent of the country's homes.

Sunday's game proved to be among the franchise's zippier; the Saints, in their first-ever Super Bowl appearance, recovered from a slow first-quarter start to beat the Colts, 31-17, which included the Saints cornerback Tracy Porter's interception off Peyton Manning that he ran back for a fourth-quarter touchdown.

Not surprisingly, the Super Bowl enjoyed its biggest ratings in New Orleans, where nearly 57 percent of TV homes were tuned into the game Sunday night. Thanks to the weather, the game did nearly as well in Washington, where a snowbound 56 percent of TV homes were glued to the game -- a bigger swath than the 54 percent of the TV homes in Indianapolis that watched.

Heavy snow across the mid-Atlantic prevented people from going to someone else's house (or, better yet, to a sports bar) to watch the game. So Sunday's contest may not actually have attracted more viewers than last year's -- just more miserable ones. Or, if you prefer, more "at-home" ones. Nielsen still does not clock out-of-home viewing in its daily numbers, notes well-known TV analyst Steve Sternberg.

Following the Super Bowl, the debut of CBS's reality series "Undercover Boss" averaged nearly 39 million viewers -- the third-highest post-Super Bowl audience ever, behind that post-Super Bowl "Friends" special in 1996 that clocked a whopping 53 million viewers, and the post-Bowl "Survivor: The Australian Outback" debut in 2001 that attracted 45 million.

"Undercover Boss" is the Practically Perfect reality TV series: Companies with tarnished public images send their CEOs "undercover" to mingle with employees, who "volunteer" to let themselves be seen on national TV once the gag is revealed to them, providing the network with free on-air talent. Everybody wins.

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