Why 49ers’ 1981 NFC Title win set Nielsen record
That 28-27 win over the Dallas Cowboys, played on Jan. 10, 1982, set the gold standard for television viewership for a semifinal-round playoff game, generating a 42.9 rating and a 62 share, according to Nielsen data. It was seen by an average of 68.7 million viewers, at a time when there were roughly 77 million TV households in the U.S.
The game was followed two weeks later by Super Bowl XVI, which still ranks as the highest-rated Super Bowl in television history with a 49.1 rating and 73 share. (A ratings point equals 1% of the total TV households in the country; share is the percentage of sets in use tuned to a specific program.)
As great a game as the ’81 NFC Championship was, it is unclear at first glance just how it galvanized a larger portion of the audience than had ever watched before. After all, there were many great teams — the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cowboys, the Minnesota Vikings, etc., who played compelling postseason games.
I went back and looked at ratings and shares for every conference title game from the time the NFL-AFL merger was consummated in 1970 through the 1980-81 season.
The title games on Jan. 3, 1971 weren’t bad; NBC’s AFC battle between the Baltimore Colts and Oakland Raiders was a three-point game in the fourth quarter before the Colts pulled away to the 27-17 final, and CBS had a 49ers-Cowboys game that went to Dallas 17-10. That NFC game, airing from San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium at 4:00 Eastern, got the better rating that day, with a very solid 31.0 and 52 share, while NBC earned a 29.7 and 62 share.
1972’s AFC Championship game featured the 15-0 Dolphins against the upstart Steelers, who had finally won their first playoff game after nearly 40 years of existence — the “Immaculate Reception” game. Now, a week later against the Dolphins, the Steelers cut a 21-10 deficit to 21-17 with plenty of time left, but Terry Bradshaw threw two interceptions to put the game away for Miami. A fascinating storyline and matchup produced a 27.1/64, but that was down from the previous year’s far less interesting Dolphins-Colts game.
Two years later, Minnesota held on for a 14-10 win against a Los Angeles Rams team that always seemed snake-bitten in the postseason. Two controversial calls seemed to turn the tide against them this time, and enough viewers tuned in to give CBS a 31.0/66.
Before the ’81 game, the best rating for an NFC Championship came in 1979, on the road to Super Bowl XIII. CBS got a 36.7 and 57 share. However, this was no thriller; Dallas crushed the Rams 28-0.
What, then, shall we make of the surge in viewership for the ’81 postseason? (The AFC championship, a 27-7 win for the Cincinnati Bengals over the San Diego Chargers, also did very well, grabbing a 35.0 rating and 61 share, setting a pleateau for an AFC title game hasn’t been topped.)
One factor, as Saint Xavier University communication professor James Walker pointed out in an October interview, was that this was “the absolute height” of network television, a point at which the Big Three universe had their greatest number of viewers, with not even a huge number of independent stations to contend with, let alone the kind of juggernaut cable would become.
Several other TV ratings records were set around this time, across sports and other genres, though they have been surpassed in terms of total viewers because there are so many more TV households than there were 30 years ago (now more than 112 million).
The highest-rated World Series telecast occurred less than two years earlier — Game 6 of the 1980 Fall Classic between the Philadelphia Phillies and Kansas City Royals (40.0, 60 share). “Dallas’s” “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger, which ended the series’ third season, hit the airwaves in 1980 (53.3, 76). The final episode of “M*A*S*H*,” still the top-rated U.S. program of all time, aired in 1983 (60.2, 77 share).
Secondly, the ’81 game probably is the best pure game of any conference matchup from 1970-81.
And finally, though the NFL surpassed Major League Baseball as the national pastime in the late ’60s, and the Super Bowl became the ultimate hype machine, there was a lull period during the mid-1970s that had to be overcome.
A New York Times article dated July 23, 1974 suggested that so many sports on television were leading to a kind of saturation, and ratings were starting to decline as a result. “Viewer interest … has dropped significantly, according to the Nielsen numbers, in such prestige sports as professional football, college football, pro basketball and hockey.”
CBS’s NFL telecasts had declined from an average rating of 16.4 in 1971, Nielsen said, to 15.0 in 1972, to 14.2 in 1973. Over the same span, NBC’s games had slipped from 13.9 to 13.3.
The only explanation that makes any sense is the ascendancy of the Dolphins, who relied on a grind-it-out running attack keyed by Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick. Friends of mine who were in their teens at the time say games throughout the league became boring, as teams tried to imitate the champions.
The rise of the Steelers, Cowboys and Raiders, all of whom had formidable passing games, brought back excitement for many fans, a perception that was reflected in late ’70s ratings and helped lead to the euphoric reaction of the early ’80s.
— David B. Wilkerson