Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Lies, damn lies and Super Bowl ratings

CBS is busy congratulating itself this morning over what is considered a highly-rated Super Bowl telecast. Super Bowl XLI drew 93 million viewers, making it the 3rd most watched event in television history, behind only the last episode of M*A*S*H and the Cowboys-Steelers in Super Bowl XXX. (Interesting that now with Super Bowl XLI, six of the top 10 all-time highest rated television shows are sports events).

But if you look behind the numbers the picture isn't so clear. In the important 18-49 demographic, the numbers rose only about one percent. The game finished with a 42 rating and 63 share, far behind the highest-rated Super Bowl of all-time. In 1982, Super Bowl XVI between the Bengals and 49ers had a 49 rating and 73 share.

That date is important because it's right about the time CNN and other cable outlets began giving audiences more viewing options. Today we live in a multi-channel cable and satellite universe, not to mention other choices such as DVD rentals and pay-per-view. Audiences now have hundreds of choices, making the Super Bowl just another spot on the remote. (During the Super Bowl on Sunday one cable channel offered back-to-back viewings of the movie Beaches; how's that for counter-programming?).

Because of all those options, sports television ratings have been declining for years. The NCAA basketball tournament, the World Series, the NBA Finals and other signature events have all seen ratings declines. The Super Bowl is somewhat immune because it has become an unofficial American holiday, but remember that the total number watching generally tends to go up because the total U.S. population keeps increasing.

What drives sports ratings today are compelling story lines, which Super Bowl XLI seemed to have. Two fresh teams, Peyton Manning's popularity, and a major-market audience in Chicago helped attract audiences. But when sport events don't have that (like last year's World Series) the ratings tend to sink dramatically.

CBS should be happy with the ratings, but it should also be aware that it may have caught lightning in a bottle.


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