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Saints' Super Bowl win nips 'MASH' finale for most-watched show ever

Joe Flint
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Move over Hawkeye Pierce, looks like Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints just took your ratings crown along with the Super Bowl title.

A record 106.5 million people watched the Saints write a storybook ending to their dream season by beating the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV on CBS, according to Nielsen.

That's not only the biggest audience to date for the Super Bowl, but the biggest audience for a televised event ever — barely knocking off the finale of CBS' "MASH," which averaged almost 106 million viewers when it ran in 1983.

Of course, the television landscape has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. When the "MASH" finale ran in 1983, there were 83.3 million television homes; now there are almost 115 million television homes. One can spin that beating the record set by "MASH" was inevitable.

Though there may be more eyeballs available now than there were 27 years ago, there are also a lot more options for viewers, making the Super Bowl number more impressive. "MASH" played in the glory days of three broadcast networks. Now, people also have hundreds of cable channels and the Internet as entertainment options.

There was some concern that power outages caused by heavy snow in the mid-Atlantic region may have hampered viewing. Instead, it looks like the cold and snow helped, keeping people inside and in front of their televisions on Sunday night. It was a similar story in that region in 1982 when a snowstorm and Arctic blast hit that region and CBS' coverage of the game between the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals scored a then-record 85.2 million viewers.

When it comes to big-event programming, it is becoming clear that the Internet is more friend than foe to television ratings. The growth of social media creates a national water cooler for viewers to share thoughts and trade quips about what they're watching. Someone watching the game alone can now feel like they are watching it at a party without having to worry about cleaning up dishes later. Twitter was overloaded a few times during the game, with people tweeting about advertisements — particularly the spot featuring David Letterman, Jay Leno and Oprah Winfrey — as well as about the game and The Who's halftime performance.

The big number provided a strong lead-in for CBS' new reality show "Undercover Boss," which premiered after the game and drew 38.6 million viewers. That is also a record for a new show's premiere after the Super Bowl. CBS took a gamble by launching a brand new show after the Super Bowl. The network ran a very tight post-game show so that "Undercover Boss" started at 10:13 p.m. EST. Sometimes the game and post-game show run so long that it's not unusual for the entertainment programming scheduled after the game to start after 10:30 p.m. in the East, which usually means lower ratings as fatigued viewers drift away.

In recent years, networks have tended to use the post-Super Bowl time slot for a special episode of an established show, as was the case last year with NBC and "The Office." The last time a network premiered a new show was in 1999, when Fox ran "Family Guy" after the match between the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons.

For history buffs, last year's down-to-the-wire Super Bowl match between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals on NBC averaged 98.7 million viewers. This is the fifth year in a row that the Super Bowl has averaged more than 90 million viewers, making it the new norm for success. Prior to the February 2006 match between Pittsburgh and Seattle, the previous seven Super Bowls had fewer than 90 million viewers.

Ad rates for Sunday's match were between the range of $2.5 million and $2.7 million, although some advertisers may have paid as much as $3 million to get into the game. Look for News Corp.'s Fox, which has the game next year, to use this year's huge ratings to try to push the cost per 30-second spot well over the $3-million mark.

If it seemed like you had more time to run to the kitchen or bathroom during the game, that's because you did. According to industry consulting firm Kantar Media, the telecast had 47 minutes and 50 seconds of commercials, a new record. If only a few had been as clever as the spot with Letterman, Leno and Winfrey.

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