For the second year in a row, 111 million Americans watched the Super Bowl. Prime time television has been dominated by reality shows, of late, with American Idol holding the top spot among network shows six years running. The Super Bowl has become the reality television event, surpassing the ratings of all other broadcasts year after year.
Network television ratings have declined steadily over the past few decades as networks face increased competition from cable, satellite, and online videos. The Super Bowl has defied this trend. There was a time when the Academy Awards show was the television event of the year. The first few Super Bowls drew about the same audience as the Oscars. Since then it hasn’t even been close.
As I watched Sunday’s game I realized that the Super Bowl, as an event, has taken the place of the Academy Awards in many ways. The comic relief previously supplied by Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, or Billy Crystal has been replaced by amusing commercials, some starring Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld. An over-produced half-time show has replaced the song and dance routines that opened each Oscar telecast. Although we saw fewer movie stars Sunday than at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Matthew Broderick and Clint Eastwood were trying to sell us cars.
For many years the game didn’t live up to the hype. Between 1983 and 2001 only 2 of 19 Super Bowls were decided by less than a touchdown, and the audience did not grow. Seven of the last 11 games were decided by six points or less, and the audience has grown by 30%. The audience for Sunday’s game, which came down to the last play, peaked in the fourth quarter at 117 million. As long as the games remain competitive the Super Bowl will likely be the only network telecast with an audience that increases each year.