ABC's coverage of Sunday's game is expected to draw a TV crowd of 80 million, easily enough to change the competitive landscape among the rival networks. The Super Bowl is likely to propel ABC from fourth place last season to second in the contest for prized viewers ages 18 to 49 -- at least for a few weeks.
Each year, the Super Bowl rotates among three net- works that paid the National Football League more than $550 million apiece for broadcast rights -- Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, Viacom Inc.'s CBS and News Corp.'s Fox Broadcasting Co. That the game landed in ABC's hands this time is the TV equivalent of a completed Hail Mary pass.
Although ABC has showed new signs of life this year, it still is searching for a bigger audience for its dramas and comedies.
All four dramas the network launched in the fall have been canceled. So far, the only real standouts have been the unscripted shows "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," along with the John Ritter comedy "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" and "Monday Night Football," which won't return until the fall.
"They've done what they needed to do. They have a couple of good shows," said analyst Tom Wolzien of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "But the network is going to need to do more."
The Super Bowl gives ABC the perfect opportunity to market itself on television's biggest stage.
ABC will saturate viewers that day with promos for its new programs during the game, as well as on eight pre-game shows. The value of that air time, had it been sold for commercials, would have been nearly $50 million.
Many of those commercials are for the second-season CIA spy drama "Alias," which will air after the game, a coveted spot. Although the show has won critical praise, it has failed to score big ratings.
And the Super Bowl may not change that.
Last year, Fox aired "Malcolm in the Middle" in the post-game slot. But over time, the show retained just 30% of the audience that it had drawn right after the Super Bowl, according to a study by Initiative Media, a firm that buys network advertising time.
During the last 10 years, the only shows to keep big numbers have been CBS' "Survivor II" in 2001 and NBC's "Friends" in 1996. In both cases, the shows already were hits.
"The halo effect of the Super Bowl is marginal," said David Poltrack, CBS' executive vice president for research and planning. "In the industry, we call it a 'borrowed audience.' The audience gathers on one channel for a night, and soon as the event is over they go right back to their old habits."
ABC also plans to use its promotional time to hype its new late-night offering, "Jimmy Kimmel Live," which will compete against veterans David Letterman and Jay Leno. ABC has been having trouble lining up guests.
The producers say one reason is that big-name stars, particularly women, are wary of Kimmel, the man who starred in Comedy Central's bawdy "The Man Show." The late-night program will be broadcast live from a former Masonic temple adjoining Disney's El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.
ABC announced Friday that it had reeled in George Clooney to appear on the show Sunday.
Although the Super Bowl may be the best promotional vehicle around, the game itself is not a moneymaker. The estimated $140 million in advertising revenue is offset by the losses that ABC incurs from its $550-million-a-year contract with the NFL.
No one at ABC thinks the Super Bowl will be the financial and programming cure-all for the network. But they are more optimistic these days because the advertising market has been stronger than expected and they've had some successes with the network's prime-time lineup.
"Last year at this time, it seemed like we were trying to stop an avalanche," said ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun. "Every show that we tried to put on the air came crashing down. This year, we're dealing with holes in our schedule."