Sunday Night Football

Back in February 1983, when watching TV meant tuning in to ABC, CBS or NBC, 106 million people watched the final episode of M*A*S*H. Legend has it that the water pressure in New York City showed a noticeable drop during the commercial breaks. For 27 years, the M*A*S*H finale stood as the most watched TV show ever, and in an era when the average home has more than 100 channels to choose from, it seemed impossible that any single broadcast could amass that type of audience again.

But Super Bowl XLIV capped what had been a storybook season for the New
Orleans Saints, playing for a city that only a few years before gave viewers the horrific images of Hurricane Katrina. After rising for three straight years, the audience for National Football League's premiere event was watched by 106.5 million viewers last year, leaving Hawkeye and Co. in the proverbial dust.

Judging from the ratings performance of the current NFL season, this year's
Super Bowl — to be played on February 6 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas — could topple the new record. While prime-time audiences for sitcoms and dramas shrink and the bar for gauging their success gets lower, the NFL's TV-viewing levels have surged to new heights.

This season, CBS averaged 18.7 million viewers for its American Football Conference telecasts, the best since at least 1987. Fox had 20.1 million viewers, the most since the network started airing NFC contests in 1994. NBC's Sunday Night Football grew by 12 percent over last season to a new high, with 21.8 million viewers. ESPN — which uses its networks, websites and radio outlets to promote Monday Night Football seven days a week — saw its best season since the weekday game moved to cable in 2006, drawing 14.7 million viewers. And the NFL Network's Thursday Night Football package was up to an all-time high of 5.7 million viewers.

How has the NFL managed to defy the gravity that has pulled down the numbers throughout the rest of TV?

The Growth of HDTV

Sixty percent of U.S. homes now have high-definition television, and sports have been a major beneficiary of the enhanced picture on a wide screen. For several seasons, networks have seen higher ratings in homes with HD sets versus the ones without.

It's DVR-proof

While playback of shows on DVR has been a frustrating new competitor for network shows, the NFL is flourishing because of it. "Sports is the ultimate reality TV that you want to watch live," says Leah LaPlaca, vice president of programming for ESPN. Many viewers no longer have to decide between watching their favorite series and tuning in to a game. They can have their Peyton Manning now and watch Desperate Housewives later. "If you miss a memorable live event, you risk not being able to be part of the national conversation the next day," says Sunday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli.

The Rise of Fantasy Leagues

There has always been plenty of wagering on football. But online fantasy sports (reportedly a $4 billion industry) demand a whole other level of involvement. TV sports executives have no doubt that fans are spending more time watching games so they can monitor the performance of players they've selected for their fantasy teams. "You may not care what happens at all to the Denver Broncos," says Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports. "But if you have running back Laurence Maroney on your fantasy team, you have an enormous interest in their games, whether you are a Broncos fan or not. If you expand that to all the people who are playing fantasy football, you cannot underestimate the impact of that. It increases the amount of interest you have in many more games."

Better Scheduling

The NFL's relatively short season makes every contest meaningful. But network executives say the league has helped boost the ratings with more appealing matchups, especially with divisional and conference rivalries. "Since the league went to four divisions in each conference, you've seen many more high-quality games," McManus notes. Howard Katz, a former ABC Sports president who is now senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations for the NFL, credits a software program that analyzes literally thousands of possible schedules and factors in which games will provide the optimal TV ratings. But there are plenty of human hours spent on the process, which has already begun for next season. "We want to make sure that we have the games with the potential for the biggest ratings in the broadcast windows that will reach the most people," says Katz.

Great Characters and Stories

There are plenty to go around: the brash taunts of New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, the peripatetic wide receiver Randy Moss and the ongoing saga of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre provided plenty of watercooler fodder. Then there is the remarkable rise of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who, after 19 months in prison, led his team into the playoffs. ESPN analyst Tom Jackson calls Vick's comeback "the most improbable story we had this year. I don't know how anyone could have imagined that."

But Katz points out (and his TV partners agree) that all of these factors are secondary to what happens on the field. "Everything is a small percentage of what makes it work," he says. "It's the players and the teams. It's all about the game."

For more on the year in football, including our picks for the best Super Bowl commercials, check out this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, January 20.

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