In a marathon game marred by an unprecedented 34-minute blackout at the Superdome in New Orleans, an average of 108.4 million total viewers tuned in to CBS and watched the Baltimore Ravens defeat the 49ers, 34-31, according to Nielsen.
That was down 3% from last year's Super Bowl telecast, when 111.3 million tuned in. That event remains the No. 1 ratings champion in U.S. history.
Even so, Sunday's telecast was the No. 3 most-watched telecast ever. No. 2 is Super Bowl XLV, with 111 million. CBS estimates that 164.1 million viewers watched at least six minutes of Sunday's telecast, a record figure.
The Nielsen results confirm the NFL championship's central role not just in the TV industry but also in American culture overall. Super Bowl Sunday has grown into a secular holiday with strong patriotic overtones. That trend may have intensified this year, with a long Jeep commercial that saluted U.S. troops and a Dodge Ram spot that featured a speech from the late radio commentator Paul Harvey hailing farmers.
"The Super Bowl is the pinnacle," said Kevin Aratari, managing director at the Los Angeles-based ad agency mOcean, who compared the effect of the NFL in the U.S. to that of pro soccer in other countries. The event has become one of the most important advertising opportunities for corporate America, with car makers, movie studios and restaurant chains shelling out nearly $4 million for each 30-second spot.
But the modest ratings dip may be a sign of looming troubles for the NFL — and for the TV broadcasters that depend on the league for enormous ratings at a time when audiences for most programming are scattering.
Former players say football-related injuries have led to early-onset dementia and other disastrous health effects, stoking public concern that the game is too violent. And while league "parity" among teams has furthered the kind of razor-close contests seen on Sunday, viewing of the 10 post-season games this year dropped 9% compared with last season.
San Francisco had been favored to win Sunday's game, but Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco set up such a blistering scoring pace in the first half that the game threatened to become a blowout. After play resumed following the blackout early in the third quarter, a 49ers surge fell short and the Ravens held on for the win.
At halftime, pop diva Beyoncé drew mostly praise for a song-and-dance spectacle that showcased eye-popping technical effects and lighting. The singer had entered the arena with something to prove, as her lip-synced rendition of the national anthem during last month's presidential inauguration had drawn heavy criticism.
Her tour-de-force Sunday — including a brief reunion with her former sidekicks in Destiny's Child — silenced many of those critics, even if the grinding bodies and revealing costumes walked close to the line for some.
"It was a little racy," Aratari said. "It was dripping with sex."
The blackout — the cause of which was still under investigation Monday — was a potential embarrassment for CBS and the NFL, but two analysts said the numbers showed it had minimal effect on viewing.
"If you look at ratings quarter-hour to quarter-hour, they held up pretty consistently," Aratari said.
However, the lengthy delay did hurt CBS in one important way. Networks like to take advantage of the huge audience for the Super Bowl and showcase an entertainment series in the post-game slot.
But due to the delay, CBS was not able to start its detective drama "Elementary" until 11:11 p.m. on the East Coast — way too late for many viewers who had just spent nearly five hours watching a football game.
As a result, "Elementary" drew 20.8 million total viewers, a steep come-down from last year, when NBC followed its Super Bowl telecast with the season premiere of "The Voice" and was rewarded with an audience of 37.6 million. In fact, it was the lowest post-Super Bowl audience since 2003, when ABC followed the game with the spy drama "Alias" (17.4 million).
CBS tried to put the best face on the situation, pointing out that "Elementary" still drew the largest young-adult audience of any entertainment series this season.
"There's no crying in Super Bowl blackouts," CBS spokesman Chris Ender wrote in an email. "We're taking our ball, going home and calling it a good day."