Why the Super Bowl lost 2.9 million viewers this year

CBS boasted yesterday that with 108.4 million viewers, a 46.3 Nielsen household rating and a 71 share, Sunday’s Super Bowl was the second-most-watched in 27 years.

More than enough lost viewers to equal the population of Chicago
More than enough lost viewers to equal the population of Chicago

There’s only one problem with that.

Last year’s, with 111.3 million viewers, was the first, culminating seven consecutive years of steady audience increase.

The number of lost viewers this year – about 2.9 million – is about 10 percent more than the entire population of America’s third-biggest city, Chicago. As a result, advertisers paid record airtime prices ($3.8 million for 30 seconds) to reach less-than-record audiences.

According to Brad Adgate, senior VP-research for Horizon Media,

“Super Bowl audiences have defied odds and logic, increasing each and every year from 2005 through 2012, an increase of 25 million viewers over seven seasons. And the last three Super Bowls have each been the most watched TV show in U.S. history, according to Nielsen.”

So this year’s audience drop was simply a case of the law of gravity finally kicking in.

But other theories could also explain it.

Theory 1: Vampire Technology

This was the first Super Bowl ever to be simultaneously live-streamed.

As an unintended consequence, that bled away broadcast viewers.

Many consumers who might otherwise have been watching it on their televisions were viewing with their smartphones, tablets or even desktops and laptops.

How many?

CBS probably knows, but as of right now they aren’t telling.

Theory 2: Football Fatigue

Adgate speculates the audience drop may be because audiences are just getting tired of NFL football:

For the 2012 regular season, viewing was down on the three broadcast networks as well as ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” Only the NFL’s own cable network consisting of 13 night games reported an increase in viewers, aided by new distribution on Time Warner Cable’s basic tier.

But in spite of that, “Sunday Night Football” was the highest-rated prime time show for the second consecutive year, “Monday Night Football” on ESPN has been cable’s most- watched program since 2006, and Fox and CBS’s Sunday afternoon game broadcasts averaged more viewers than the top-rated prime-time show in the fourth quarter.

Go figure.

Theory 3: It’s the economy, stupid

The Super Bowl is a celebratory event that many, perhaps most, Americans observe with Super Bowl parties.

With January’s announcement that unemployment was up again – this time to 7.9 percent – and GDP was actually down (-0.1 percent) for the first time since 2008, fewer Americans had anything to party about.

Theory 4: Advertisers ruined the suspense

Historically, the Super Bowl broadcast has exerted a magnetic pull even on non-sports fans because it was an advertising extravanganza, with as many people watching the commercial breaks to see what kind of big-budget and hopefully big-idea spot was coming up next.

Not this year.

That’s because, with a few notable exceptions like Procter & Gamble and Chrysler (whose commercials, incidentally, made the USA Today ad meter’s top five), advertisers got greedy.

They released their commercials days – in some cases weeks – in advance online, just to get all those free views.

Toyota, for example, got 11 million free views, Volkswagen 4.5 million and the mawkish Budweiser Clydesdale commercial 2.2 million.

But in so doing, they ruined one of the two major elements of surprise and suspense. The other – the game itself – was more important to football fans than to consumers in general, even for a cliff-hanger like this year’s.

Century 21’s pregame Harris Interactive research showed that 63 percent of women go to Super Bowl gatherings not for the game, but for the social company; and while their menfolk watch the game, the women themselves watch the commercials. Unless they already saw them, that is.

So advertisers’ greed may not have just cost the Super Bowl 2.9 million viewers. It may have cost millions more who were in the room but not watching.

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