Super Bowl Underscores the Big Business of Must-See, Live TV
It is a fact of modern life that the mass has gone out of media, with television ratings reflecting that each of us is building our own little campfire on our phone, tablet and big screen at a time and place of our choosing.
Until a bonfire like the Super Bowl is lit.
Then we all show up, generally in greater and greater numbers each year. And it's not just for the biggest of all games. Live events - including the N.F.L.'s regular season, the Grammys, the Oscars and the Golden Globes - have all managed to escape the broad loss of audience in network television. New-media types will posit that second screens fueled by social media have made live events seem all the more urgent, and while that's true, I think something more primal is at work.
At a time of atomization in which we all end up down the hobbit holes of our special interests, big live television fulfills a need to have something, anything, in common. You can go on Twitter on any given night to discuss the second episode of the third season of "Girls" with your like-minded pals, but if you want to talk about something that your boss, your mother, your cabdriver and your bartender all have an opinion on, this week it will probably include the words "Peyton Manning" and some clichí© about what can happen on any given Sunday.
Similarly, the week before, we were all chatting about the weddings that Queen Latifah presided over at the Grammys, and the week before that, Jacqueline Bisset's strangely riveting speech at the Golden Globes. Those moments happened at a specific time and place that your DVR may have recorded, but did not really capture.
That may be part of the reason that even as network ratings have dropped 29 percent over the last decade, the Grammys have added six million viewers, the Academy Awards have added three million give or take, and the Golden Globes have managed to hold steady over the same time period, according to the Nielsen Company. No wonder that Dick Clark Productions is adding as many live events as it can get its hands on and that William Morris Endeavor recently made a huge bet by buying IMG to gain access to sports, powered as it is by live events.
Even when network television is staring down a dreary landscape, the National Football League's numbers are in a class by themselves.
â– This season, N.F.L. games on CBS, Fox and NBC averaged 20.3 million viewers, nearly three times the average broadcast audience.
â– Over 200 million viewers tuned in for the regular season. Of the 35 most watched shows this fall, 34 belonged to the N.F.L.
â– The last four Super Bowls were the most watched television programs in history in terms of total viewers.
And just in case you think it's just a bunch of boys guzzling beers and making burp jokes or worse, women make up 35 percent of the average N.F.L. audience. More women watch the Super Bowl than men and women watch the Academy Awards combined. That's how big football has become, and that's why it has become must-have TV. ABC, the odd network out right now with professional football, cannot wait to get off the sidelines.
Brian Rolapp, executive vice president for NFL Media, said there was a reason that live football was becoming bigger even as much of the media world was shrinking.
"At a time of division in the rest of life, by socioeconomics, by race, by class, by gender, every which way that people tend to get divided by, the N.F.L. cuts through a lot of that," he said. "Everyone you know is cheering for a team. There are very few things like that right now."
Ratings for this year's Super Bowl are bound to be large: Viewing for the N.F.L. was up 5 percent this year over last, and the ratings for the conference championships were up 20 percent over those of the previous year. Add in the fact that the game featured the best defense in the league against the best offense in the league and only the haters could suggest that there was nothing worth tuning in for. We have all learned that our viewing pleasure comes at a terrible cost to many of the combatants in terms of torn tendons, broken limbs, concussions and brain injuries, but still we watch.
I thought about the power of the live event, of tribal ritual held in common, after I attended the Super Bowl Media Day last Tuesday at the Prudential Center in Newark. As I walked into the arena, one of about 3,000 journalists (of the 6,300 who have been credentialed for the game), I turned and looked up into the stands. About 7,000 people, according to my colleague Richard Sandomir, had each paid $28.50 to watch us watch the players as they endured an hour of questioning, some of which had very little to do with the actual game of football.
It was just a few hours of interviews, inane ones at that, removed by both geography and time from the actual event. But the N.F.L. could have sold even more tickets if it had not capped attendance at 7,000. If a manufactured event can generate so much enthusiasm, no wonder the real one looms so large.
I left after the Denver Broncos portion of the day, stepping out into the chill with a few other reporters. We were cynically deconstructing the spectacle when a young man named Abbas came up to me. He had been unable to get a ticket to the nonevent and wanted to know, well, everything. "You guys are so lucky," he said.
What he was referring to was not the spectacle, but the adjacency to real, actual humans who play, once the hoopla dies down, a real, actual game. There is, underneath all the sponsors, the hype and the fanfare, something authentic underway that most people want to watch at the same time. The next month will bring two more mega-events, the Winter Olympics and then the Oscars. They are, foremost, events that happen on television, and when you tune in live along with the rest of America, you are there.
There is, even in an age of individualized media cocoons, a deep hunger for a common experience and all the ritual that accompanies it. At our house, it is the one day a year when we buy a big bucket of KFC, snark on the halftime entertainment - we are looking at you, Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers - and watch the same thing together at the same time. Yes, my daughters will be pecking at their phones and I will pipe up on Twitter, but for one night, the game itself is the thing.
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