At the risk of indulging in the unpardonable sin of sports-media blasphemy, here’s something to bear in mind as America’s great secular holiday approaches: The Super Bowl TV ratings don’t matter.
While the postgame ritual of counting the house has been a part of the national conversation going back to the days when Up with People lent their signature brand of Thorazine-blunted cheer to the halftime show, the size of the TV audience is essentially just a marketing tool.
Because the networks don’t furnish ratings guarantees to the advertisers who buy time in the Super Bowl, there are no audience targets that must be reached to satisfy the people who are paying tens of millions of dollars for in-game commercial inventory. In other words, regardless of however many viewers tune in on Feb. 7, CBS is in no way on the hook to make up for any perceived under-deliveries. (The Academy Awards broadcast on ABC is the only other TV property that gets sold without the standard makegoods insurance policy, which secures a preset number of audience-deficiency units in other programs in the event of a lower-than-anticipated turnout.)
The caveat emptor approach to selling the Super Bowl is a function of the game’s unparalleled reach. Advertisers know heading into the Big Game that the broadcast will be seen by at least 100 million consumers, which is about 18 times the size of CBS’s average primetime audience, per Nielsen live-same-day data. Secure a spot right after a particularly compelling halftime performance and you could be looking at as many as 119.2 million viewers, as was the case with NBC’s coverage of Super Bowl XLIX in 2015.
Naturally, if advertisers weren’t already assured that a Super Bowl investment is the safest bet on TV, they wouldn’t take the plunge. (CBS’s asking price of $5.5 million per 30-second spot is merely the cost of reserving the requisite airtime; after production expenses, ancillary social-media investments and agency fees are accounted for, the actual outlay for a single Super Bowl ad can swell to $20 million.) Again, there’s little risk involved on the impressions front. The last time the NFL title game wasn’t the year’s top-rated broadcast was way back in 1983, when the series finale of M*A*S*H drew 105.9 million viewers to CBS, eclipsing the 81.8 million viewers NBC scared up a month earlier with Super Bowl XVII.
Since the M*A*S*H coup, the only broadcast that’s come within shouting distance of outscoring the Big Game was the 1993 Cheers finale, which trailed Super Bowl XXVII by a mere 6.6 million viewers. NBC aired both.
Another factor working in CBS’s favor is the presence of Tom Brady, who has been featured in three of the most-watched Super Bowl broadcasts of all time, including the high-water game in 2015. NBC’s coverage of Seattle’s 28-24 loss to New England in Super Bowl XLIX averaged 114.4 million viewers and peaked at 120.8 million as Pete Carroll’s mystifying slant-pass call ended in disaster for the Seahawks.
As of 2010, when CBS first crashed through the 100 million-viewer barrier with its coverage of Super Bowl XLIV, the game has yet to fall short of this (admittedly arbitrary) benchmark. But in recent years, coming up with a nine-digit number has called for some creative accounting. Depending on who’s doing the counting, CBS in 2019 either had been burdened with the lowest-rated Super Bowl in 11 years or had earned bragging rights to the third most-watched U.S. television event of all time. The late addition of some 12 million out-of-home viewers to CBS’s linear deliveries gave rise to this Schrödinger’s-ratings situation; at the time, the bonus impressions from barflies, partygoers and restaurant patrons hadn’t been incorporated into Nielsen’s ratings currency, so there are some who would argue that they didn’t count toward the official TV tally.
This quantitative ambiguity is another argument against getting all worked up about the Super Bowl ratings, as it makes for an apples-to-hand-grenades comparison between this year’s broadcast and each of the non-augmented games that came before it.
When it comes right down to it, Super Bowl ratings are primarily about bragging rights and inflating the host network’s full-season demo deliveries. They’re also useful in establishing a baseline unit cost for the next network in line to host the game, so NBC’s ad sales team undoubtedly will take great interest in how CBS performs next Sunday.
Unless you work for either network, you needn’t worry about how the ratings will shake out. Barring an extinction-level event—knock wood!—Super Bowl LV will be the most-watched, highest-rated broadcast of 2021, and nothing else will even come close. Everything else is trivia.