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.


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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