REVEAL SHOT

A SOPHISTICATED LOOK AT FILM AND TELEVISION

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Re-post: A look back at the 1981 NFC Championship Game and other top-rated conference title games

(Reveal Shot presents a re-post of one of our first entries: a look back at the 1981 NFC title game and why it remains the highest-rated conference championship match-up.)

(Originally published Jan. 21, 2013)

 

Now that the San Francisco 49ers have made it to a sixth Super Bowl, there will be memories of the victory that set up its chance at that first ring, the 1981 NFC Championship Game.

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.

CBS graphic 1-3-71NFCThe 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.1974 NFC

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

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TV’s 10 top-rated Super Bowls; No. XVI (1982) still stands alone

Super Bowls have been setting viewership records in recent years. Last year, an average of 111.3 million viewers watched the New York Giants edge the New England Patriots 21-17 — the largest audience for any program in U.S. television history.

Super-20Bowl-20XII-20-20Cowboys-20Broncos-20Superbowl

Tenacious Dallas defense forced seven Denver turnovers by halftime of the Cowboys’ 27-10 win in Super Bowl XII (CBS), the oldest of television’s 10 highest-rated Super Bowls.

However, Nielsen’s ratings are concerned with the percentage of TV viewers tuned to a given program. By that measure, the top-ranked Super Bowl remains Super Bowl XVI, as I mentioned in a Reveal Shot item several days ago that focused on conference title games.

Below are the 10 highest-rated Super Bowls, according to historical data from Nielsen. (For best results, click “download” above the .pdf, rather than the magnification icon; apologies for the old-school methodology. It took me a while to find a format wide enough to let me include the announcers.)

Download (PDF, 30KB)

The oldest game among the top 10, at No. 4, is Super Bowl XII (CBS), a coronation for the Dallas Cowboys after their dominating 12-2 season in 1977. This was the first Super Bowl to be played in primetime, and it was easily the most-watched sports event in television history to that point, and the second most-watched TV program of all time, trailing only the concluding “Roots: Part Eight,” which had aired on ABC in January 1977.

Though Super Bowl XII helped CBS win its week handily, ABC was just too much to overcome in the 1977-78 season, with 12 series among the season’s 20 highest-rated, including the 1-2-3 punch of “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Three’s Company.”

The following year’s Super Bowl XIII (NBC), for years considered the very best of them all, still comes in at No. 5 on the list. However, in another sign of ABC’s power during this period, NBC could not win the week ended Jan. 21, 1979 even with a 47.1 rating and 74 share for the game. According to Weekly Variety’s Jan. 24 edition, ABC won the week with a 23.5 average, 5 full points ahead of second-place CBS, which meant that NBC finished a distant third.

Interesting to see just one ABC Super Bowl telecast among the top 10; the innovations it brought to “Monday Night Football,” including definitive use of isolated cameras, the first truly extensive pre-game discussions with both teams days before the game to get various insights and much more came rather lately to the other networks. Terry O’ Neil irritated many people when he brought ABC’s techniques to CBS upon arrival there in 1981.

One of those people was Vin Scully, who had been led to believe he would be the main play-by-play man for CBS’s NFL coverage. Former CBS sports chief Neal Pilson explained what the problem was in a 2007 interview with me.

 

 

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Why 49ers’ 1981 NFC Title win set Nielsen record

Now that the San Francisco 49ers have made it to a sixth Super Bowl, there will be memories of the victory that set up its chance at that first ring, the 1981 NFC Championship Game.

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.

CBS Logo Light

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.

CBS graphic 1-3-71NFCThe 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.

1974 NFCTwo 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