Super Bowl XLIV, which pitted Indianapolis Colts against the New Orleans Saints, was watched by 106,476,000 million viewers, topping the record of 105,970,000 viewers set by the series finale of M*A*S*H 27 years ago on February 28th, 1983. The game is now the most-WATCHED or most-VIEWED single television program in the United States. The game also set a new record for so-called “total viewers” (those who watched all or part of the broadcast) with 153.4 million viewers. The M*A*S*H finale had a total viewership of 121.62; its record was eclipsed in 1986 by Super Bowl XX.
The president of CBS News and Sports, Sean McManus, had this to say about the record-breaking performance of Super Bowl XLIV:
It was going to happen at some point. I loved ‘M*A*S*H’ and watched it all the time. But all of us in the industry are relieved that we don’t have to hear that the Super Bowl was the second- or third-highest-rated broadcast in history, three million behind ‘M*A*S*H.’
I should point out that McManus misspoke; Super Bowl XLIV may be the most-WATCHED broadcast but it isn’t even close to being the highest-RATED. The game averaged a 45.0 Nielsen rating, much lower than the 60.2 rating for the M*A*S*H finale. According to this TVByTheNumbers.com list, Super Bowl XLIV’s 45.0 rating ties for 26th with the 1971 Bob Hope Christmas Show on the list of highest-rated programs. Because there are more television households today than there were in 1983, that 45.0 rating equals 51,728,000 homes, compared to the 50,146,600 who watched the M*A*S*H finale. That was another 27-year-record broken by Super Bowl XLIV.
I’m sure there are a lot of M*A*S*H fans disappointed to see the record for most-watched program broken. But remember that population growth made it inevitable. On the other hand, in today’s fractured media environment, the fact that Super Bowl XLIV managed to draw more than 100 million viewers is quite the achievement. Alan Alda told The New York Times “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.”
To sum up, the M*A*S*H finale now holds just one record. It is still the highest-RATED single television broadcast of all time. As Alan Alda suggested, however, making direct comparison betweens the two broadcasts is unnecessary: “We hit it out of the park, and so did New Orleans. Do I have the sports analogy right?”
I’ll be updating my Goodbye, Farewell and Amen Ratings Analysis later this week.