By Pete Williams
Ever since the New Orleans Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts Sunday night, the NFL has been touting Super Bowl 44 as the highest-rated program in television history.
The NFL is lying.
On Sunday, 106.5 million people in this country watched the Super Bowl, slightly more than the 106 million who watched the final episode of M*A*S*H in 1983.
The difference, of course, is population. There were roughly 235 million people in this country in 1983. Now there are 308 million. As a percentage of viewers, which is what TV ratings represent, it’s not even close. M*A*S*H still holds the record – a Nielsen rating of 60.2 and a 77 share of the audience.
Super Bowl 44 got “only” a 46.4 rating and a 68 percent share. If the NFL wants to trumpet this as the “most-watched” TV event, that’s true, though only by a slim margin. But to call it the “highest-rated” program is false, not that the NFL worries too much about the truth. This is a league, after all, that would have you believe that it’s free of performance-enhancing drugs and that long-term brain damage is not a problem among ex-players.
For people who don’t remember 1983, it must be mind-boggling to think that a network television program drew nearly two-thirds of the population on Feb. 28, 1983, a Monday night, for a two-and-a-half hour season finale.
Back then, many households did not have cable television. Network TV still ruled. M*A*S*H, one of the five best shows ever, still commanded a huge audience even though it lasted four times longer than the Korean War it portrayed.
Even at 13, I was a huge M*A*S*H fan and was horrified when my youth basketball coach didn’t call off our Monday night practice. There was no such thing as a DVR back then and we didn’t even have a VCR yet. I would have missed the show. Thankfully, the coach called practice when only four of us showed up.
I thought of that Sunday night when my son’s swim program staged a weekend-long meet that included a Sunday evening session. Not until Sunday morning did the organizers realize it might be a good idea to move that session up two hours from its 5:30 p.m. scheduled start.
There’s no denying that the NFL is a white-hot entertainment property, arguably as popular as it has ever been. But because of the fragmentation of our media culture, nothing – not even the Super Bowl – will ever again command the audience that M*A*S*H drew on Feb. 28, 1983.
It’s a record that will never be broken.