Move over Hawkeye, Super Bowl XLIV is now the most-watched television program in history. Sunday's game between the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts drew 106.5 million viewers, barely topping the 105.97 million who watched the series finale of "M*A*S*H" in 1983.
It's the first time a sporting event in the United States has surpassed 100 million viewers. The soaring popularity of the NFL, Peyton Manning(notes), the hype around the Saints as an inspiration to New Orleans, the first Super Bowl between No. 1 seeds since 1993 and the Mid-Atlantic blizzard combined to give the league its highest viewership of all time. Just imagine if Brett Favre(notes) had been playing.
A higher percentage of Americans watched the final episode of "M*A*S*H" 27 years ago (approximately 45 percent of the population), but that was also in an era when cable was at its infancy and most people had just three networks from which to choose. Super Bowl XLIV had to go up against "Puppy Bowl," for pete's sake.
Nielsen Co. reports that 153.4 million people watched at least part of the game, up from 151.6 million last year. In a television industry defined by declining viewership, the fact that the NFL's biggest game has done a better rating in each of the past five years is somewhat stunning. The audience is supposed to be getting more fragmented, not setting records.
The presence of Peyton Manning was a huge force in the staggering numbers, but don't underestimate the role of the weekend blizzard. Record-setting snow totals in the Mid-Atlantic kept people snowbound and likely increased the number of TVs tuned into the game. Amazingly, Super Bowl XLIV did a better rating in D.C. (56.0) than it did in Indianapolis (54.2).