Another ratings record, another halftime controversy. What else could it have been but the Super Bowl?
Sunday's NFL championship set another TV ratings record, the latest evidence that the Super Bowl has become the equivalent of a nationwide secular holiday, with all the attendant hoopla and partisan bickering one might expect.
An average of 111.3 million total viewers tuned in to NBC's coverage, according to figures from Nielsen, watching the underdog New York Giants hold off the New England Patriots 21-17 in a seesaw match that went down to the final moments.
Statistically, the viewership was flat with last year's game on Fox (111 million). But the less-than-1% increase was nevertheless enough for NBC to claim bragging rights for the most-watched telecast in U.S. TV history. The network estimated that 177 million viewers — or more than 56% of the current U.S. population — watched at least six minutes of the game. That gave it a reach comparable with an entire cycle of the Olympics, spread over many days and nights. Advertisers paid a reported $3.5 million for 30 seconds of ad time during Sunday's game.
Running counter to the trend of fragmenting audiences that has afflicted TV and media in general, the Super Bowl has compiled an impressive record of increasing viewership year after year. This is the third consecutive year that the Super Bowl has established a new record for viewership.
And of the five most-watched telecasts in history, four are Super Bowls. The only non-sports program to make the cut is the February 1983 finale of the CBS sitcom "MASH," which drew 106 million and now ranks No. 4.
Football remains the most popular televised sport in America, and major sports events tend to draw high numbers generally because viewers greatly prefer to watch them in real time. Although NFL regular-season ratings were slightly down this season compared with last, the playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl posted a mild increase.
Ratings for the Super Bowl were aided by the close game, which was decided on the last play.
"In recent years, these games have gone down to the wire," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for New York-based ad firm Horizon Media. "The longer viewers stay with the game, the higher the ratings and average audience."
In the adults ages 18 to 49 demographic favored by advertisers, Sunday's game drew a 40.5 rating, the highest number since the 1996 Super Bowl in which the Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As is the case with all Super Bowls, much of the attention was fixed on things other than football, including the annual carnival of high-priced ads that barked (sometimes literally, with canine performers) during commercial breaks. Twitter and other social media were filled with reaction to spots featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno for Acura, Matthew Broderick for Honda and Clint Eastwood for Chrysler.
Eastwood's gung-ho spot, with its paean to the "roar" of American engines, has already become the focus of partisan sniping, with conservative critic Michelle Malkin dismissing it as "an auto bailout ad" designed to enhance President Obama's reelection prospects. (Eastwood, for the record, has at different times supported both Republicans and Democrats.)
NBC said the heavily hyped halftime show, featuring Madonna with a special assist from Cee Lo Green, LMFAO, Nicki Minaj and MIA, was the most-watched ever, with 114 million viewers. That doesn't mean, however, that the musical extravaganza was more popular than football, but rather that viewing of the entire Super Bowl telecast was increasing throughout the evening, and Madonna and friends benefited by being sandwiched in the middle of it all. During the last half-hour, with New York mounting a game-winning scoring drive, average viewing topped out at 117.7 million.
Meanwhile, MIA — a British rapper famed for kicking up controversy in alt-music circles — raised another storm when she was glimpsed briefly extending her middle finger during the musical program. The gesture recalled the controversial halftime program of the 2004 Super Bowl, when Janet Jackson briefly exposed her nipple in what was dubbed a "wardrobe malfunction."
That incident became a rallying flag for critics who accused the mainstream media of doing too little to keep obscenity away from families. Last year, an appellate court overturned the $500,000 fine the Federal Communications Commission ordered CBS to pay in the Jackson scandal.
The critics were out again for NBC on Sunday.
"NBC fumbled and the NFL lied because a performer known as MIA felt it necessary to flip off millions of families," Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, a frequent network critic, said in a statement. "It is unfortunate that a spectacular sporting event was overshadowed once again by broadcasting the selfish acts of a desperate performer."
However, the game cast a rosy ratings glow over long-suffering NBC — a network that desperately needs whatever encouragement it can get. The network has had trouble launching virtually any new show lately.
NBC's Season 2 premiere of the singing contest "The Voice," which started right after the game, averaged 37.6 million total viewers and was the highest-rated entertainment program on any network in six years.
Times staff writer Patrick Kevin Day contributed to this report.