For the third time in as many years, Sunday’s Super Bowl has been crowned the most watched television broadcast ever.

View Photo Gallery: The New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots in the highly anticipated Super Bowl rematch at Lucas Oil Stadium. The teams faced each other at the Super Bowl in 2008.

An estimated 111.3 million people watched the New York Giants defeat the New England Patriots, 21-17, Nielsen said Monday afternoon.

Of course, it also means a record number of people saw rapper/singer M.I.A. flip off America during Madonna’s halftime show. NBC and the NFL are engaged in what is not yet quite a war of words — maybe a kerfuffle of words — over that incident.

And with the Super Bowl climbing to the top of the Nielsen ratings pile for the third consecutive year, the longtime record-holder — CBS’s 1983 “M*A*S*H” series finale — moves farther down the list, to fourth.

That long-running anti-war dramedy averaged a whopping 106 million, back when the country’s population was 200 million. Today, the U.S. Census Bureau puts the country’s population at more than 300 mil. “M*A*S*H” is still several laps ahead of all these Super Bowls when it comes to percentage of the country’s homes that tuned in to watch.

In more good news for NBC: Right after Sunday night’s game, the second-season debut of the singing competition “The Voice” clocked nearly 38 million viewers. That’s about 10 million more people than hung around after last year’s game to watch Fox’s high-school musical, “Glee.”

But for the record, “The Voice’s” total is not nearly so good as the 53 million people who stuck around after the 1996 Super Bowl to watch an episode of NBC’s “Friends.”

“The Voice’s” post-Super Bowl showing is extremely important to NBC because the second episode of the show’s new season will air Monday night — immediately after which, NBC will launch the highly hyped new show “Smash.” And that Steven Spielberg scripted series — about a team of people putting on a Broadway musical on the life of Marilyn Monroe — is considered to be mired-in-fourth-place NBC’s best hope for a hit in what has otherwise been a bleak season.

But getting back to Sunday’s game: How about that halftime show! In case you missed it, Madonna was pulled in by a phalanx of musclemen, slipped at least once, recoverd nicely, but then got totally upstaged when one of her extravaganza’s accessories — Brit rapper M.I.A. — waved her middle finger at the TV camera. The gesture, accompanied by an indistinguishable maybe-expletive, came when Madge was singing her new single, “Give Me All Your Luvin.”

Toward the end of her brief solo bit, M.I.A. sang, “I don’t give a [something]” — it was hard to hear. Sounded like she actually just said “Shhhhh,” figuring everyone would get her drift.

NBC clearly tried to block M.I.A.’s gesture, because all the performers on stage vanished from the screen for a nano-second — but it came too late.

“We apologize for the inappropriate gesture that aired during halftime. It was a spontaneous gesture that our delay system caught late,” NBC said Sunday night.

Broadcast networks typically air live events (except sporting events and news events) on a delay of several seconds so its Decency Police can catch naughty gestures and language.

Meanwhile, those tough guys at the NFL, which produced the halftime show, reacted quickly, issuing a statement in which the league pointed its finger at NBC. In a statement, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy blamed the network’s delay-system for letting the gesture slip through. “The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing, and we apologize to our fans,” McCarthy told the Associated Press on Sunday.

McCarthy said that M.I.A. did not make the gesture during rehearsals, so the NFL had had no cause to think she would do so during the show.

Hey, guess what CBS boss Leslie Moonves said back in 2004 after Justin Timberlake ripped off part of Janet Jackson’s costume during that year’s Super Bowl halftime show, revealing her right nipple?

What he said was: “We attended all the rehearsals of the show, and there was no indication at any time that such an inappropriate display was contemplated.”

Back then, the NFL commissioner called the national debut of Jackson’s right nipple “offensive, inappropriate and embarrassing to us and our fans” and promised, on behalf of the NFL, to “change our policy, our people and our process for managing the halftime entertainment” to make sure something like that never happened again.”


Anyway, NBC couldn’t let pass without comment the NFL’s Sunday statement: “The NFL hired the talent and produced the halftime show,” NBC said in an updated statement on Monday, adding: “Our system was late to obscure the inappropriate gesture and we apologize to our viewers.”

The watchdog group Parents Television Council, on the other hand, got to fire off another of its yeasty statements of outrage after the game, demanding somebody’s head.

“It is unfortunate that a spectacular sporting event was overshadowed once again by broadcasting the selfish acts of a desperate performer,” PTC said in a statement.

NBC’s apology — and the NFL’s playing dumb — rings “hollow after yet another slap in the face to families,” PTC continued.

“Either the NFL and NBC will take immediate steps to hold those accountable for this offensive material in front of a hundred-million Americans, or they will feebly sit back and do nothing,” PTC said. In which case, expect PTC to demand that the FCC start spewing fines.

Meanwhile, nobody can say Madonna lied when she promised last week during a news conference that there would be no wardrobe malfunctions during her halftime performance.

“How can you guarantee against a wardrobe malfunction, given your history?” one reporter asked Madge last Thursday. Clearly he was not thinking on a large-enough scale.

“Is that something you’re thinking about?” he added — again, specifically about a wardrobe issue. He apparently had not seen the video that Madonna made for the tune, in which M.I.A. also puts her finger on parade.

“Oh, yes,” Madge responded. “Great attention to detail has been paid to my wardrobe. There will be no wardrobe malfunctions. Promise.”

Madonna was the first non-guy Super Bowl halftime star since the national TV debut of Janet Jackson’s right breast effectively banned female halftime headliners. Until Sunday, only Viagra Generation guys had been allowed to star in Super Bowl halftime shows, starting with Paul McCartney in ’05. Last year, Fergie was allowed to participate in the halftime fun, but only as a member of the Black Eyed Peas.

Related reading:

Last year: Super Bowl clocks historic 111 million viewers; ‘Glee’ fumbles 84 million of them

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