New Orleans’s 31-17 victory in the Super Bowl on Sunday on CBS generated more viewers — an average of 106.5 million — than any other television program in United States history, defeating the 1983 broadcast of the final episode of “M*A*S*H.”
Alan Alda, the star of “M*A*S*H” and the director of its two-and-a-half-hour finale, wrote in an e-mail message: “I’m happy for New Orleans. I want to see that city come out first in every way that it can, even if it means giving up a record that ‘M*A*S*H’ held for a long time.”
For a program to attract more than 100 million viewers today is nearly miraculous. There are 114.9 million TV households now, nearly 32 million more than when the final “M*A*S*H” attracted 106 million viewers. But the media universe is fractionalized now, with many more TV channels and other ways to amuse ourselves.
CBS, ABC and NBC held 80 percent of the share of prime-time viewing in 1983 when there was no Fox; the three command 28 percent now, with Fox adding 9 percent. The average home in 1983 had 10.3 channels; it now has more than 10 times as many. And sometimes, the best thing to watch is still a “M*A*S*H” rerun.
Ratings for big events were higher then than they are now. The final “M*A*S*H” generated a 60.2 rating (the estimated percentage of TV households tuned to a program); Sunday’s Super Bowl produced a 45.0. But a larger population means a lower rating can yield more viewers.
The Super Bowl is virtually immune to the altered TV landscape.And New Orleans and Indianapolis had the stirring story of one city’s fight to recover from Hurricane Katrina and the other city’s status as home to one of the N.F.L’s perennially elite teams.
Sunday’s game featured two of the best quarterbacks in the league, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, with the added features of Brees’s personal connection to New Orleans’s revival and Manning’s familial link to the city.
Both teams were No. 1 seeds and were undefeated until late in the season. “The national appeal of teams in any particular year is more important than the size of their markets,” McManus said.
The snow in the Middle Atlantic states kept inside some people who otherwise might have gone out.The Super Bowl is the only sports event that many people watch entirely for the ads, giving it two natural constituencies: sports fans and casual viewers who will endure the game to watch the commercials.