The Super Bowl is, literally and figuratively, the Super Bowl of TV shows.
The standard against which other live viewing is measured — how often have we heard the Oscars called “the Super Bowl for women”? — it’s nearly all that’s left of what once was a national pastime: watching TV in real time, in numbers large enough to make it a shared experience.
American Idol, once so dominant on Fox that other networks called it “the Death Star,” averaged 38 million viewers for its second-season finale, and 30.75 million for its most-watched season, the fifth. ABC, which will reboot the show on March 11, is unlikely to see numbers even close to those. Last year’s Oscars averaged 32.9 million viewers, the Jan. 28 Grammys, 19.8 million, with ratings for both shows down by many millions from their Nielsen heydays.
Yet on Sunday, more than 100 million Americans can be expected to watch the same game their friends and neighbors are watching, maybe in the same room, and definitely at the same time, not a day or two later on the DVR, or by clicking through a selection of YouTube highlights.
There are, blessedly, no spoiler alerts for the Super Bowl.
It doesn’t hurt that, unlike the 1969 moon landing or the 1983 series finale of M*A*S*H, the last nonsports TV event to draw a 100 million-plus audience, the NFL championship game happens every year. It also can be scheduled more precisely than, say, the World Series (or even the Oscars, where the big plays may occur long after most fans are in bed).
And though fans in Philadelphia and, ahem, Boston, may be tuning in to Super Bowl LII primarily to see the Eagles play the Patriots — and to hear Doylestown’s Pink sing the national anthem and East Oak Lane’s Leslie Odom Jr. perform “America the Beautiful” — it doesn’t hurt, either, that football’s far from the only thing on the menu.
— Leslie Odom, Jr. (@leslieodomjr) January 22, 2018
Ummm. I’m singing the national anthem and the EAGLES ARE PLAYING?!?!?! IS THIS FOR REAL?!?!?!THATS WHASSUP!!!!!!!! Shtjtkd widnamc ckamcnsnzncbx!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Wooohooooooooooooioooooooooooooooooooooooooiiiiiiooooooooooo
— P!nk (@Pink) January 22, 2018
Along with the game, NBC’s promoting the halftime show with Justin Timberlake, the postgame sobfest of This Is Us, and a special edition of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The entertainment division tie-ins are important enough to the Comcast-owned network that Philadelphia’s NBC10 has no plans to preempt either This Is Us or Fallon for expanded local coverage, which will instead be available on Cozi TV.
Beyond the questions of who will win this year, and what sponsors will have the cleverest commercials, and why we can’t have commercials that clever all year round, is this: How many will watch?
Super Bowl viewership peaked in 2015, when the game between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks averaged an estimated 114.4 million viewers. It dropped to 111.9 million in 2016 and 111.3 million last year. (Ad rates, meanwhile, continue to rise, with NBC reportedly asking more than $5 million for a 30-second spot this year.)
As Los Angeles Times media reporter Stephen Battaglio wrote recently, the NFL faces challenges, “including fan anger toward the players protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, injuries and the long-term effects of concussions, as well as lengthy games in an age when young viewers prefer sports highlights on their phones.”
It’s not clear how much any of those have affected ratings in a broadcast environment where many fewer people watch anything in real time. With regular-season football ratings also down for the second consecutive season, can the Patriots-Eagles matchup on Sunday buck the trend?
NBC hopes to make sure it will by making its big day available to as many people as possible, including those who may not want to watch on — or even own — a TV.
On what the network’s calling “Super Stream Sunday,” users can access an NBC livestream for 11 hours without having to offer proof of a cable or satellite subscription. The free streaming begins at noon with pregame coverage and continues through This Is Us. It can be watched at NBCSports.com, NBC. Com, and through the NBC Sports app, which is available for Apple iOS, Android, and some Samsung devices, as well as for Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, Win10, and Xbox, according to NBC. Those watching on their phones will also be able to access the free livestream through the Yahoo Sports and NFL apps.
Streaming, though, cuts both ways. Viewers who come only for the commercials (you know who you are) don’t have to wait till Sunday to see some of the spots sponsors are betting millions on. Many are already online.
And at least one is only online. It’s from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, starring James Cromwell as a priest hearing confession, with the tagline, “Go Vegan.” According to a spokeswoman for PETA, which has posted the commercial to YouTube, NBC wanted the group to pay $10.4 million for a 30-second spot before it would consider the ad. Other PETA spots, including one linking meat-eating with impotence, have been turned down in the past, and the organization maintains a collection, “Too Hot for the Big Game: PETA’s Banned Super Bowl Ads,” on its website, so Cromwell being sidelined on Super Sunday might not be a huge surprise.
Budweiser’s famous Clydesdales will make only the briefest of appearances this year, in what Adweek reports will be a 5-second ad to let fans know about the “Clydesdale Cam” on the company’s Facebook page.
Plenty of other stars are expected to make it to the big game’s commercial breaks, however. Peyton Manning travels to Universal Studios and tries to learn to wield a wand like Harry Potter. Chris Pratt takes off his shirt for Michelob Ultra. A red M&M finds his inner Danny DeVito, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is one of the least famous faces in an ad in which digital assistant Alexa is briefly replaced by Cardi B, Rebel Wilson, Gordon Ramsay, and Anthony Hopkins. Amazon Prime Video service, meanwhile, will use the Super Bowl to introduce The Office’s John Krasinski as the star of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.
Wait and watch them live, though, and you just might be sharing the experience with NASA astronauts on the International Space Station.
Last year, in conjunction with Houston’s hosting the Super Bowl, astronauts Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough had Patriot and Atlanta Falcons jerseys on hand in the International Space Station, NASA having thoughtfully packed all 32 NFL teams’ jerseys in advance.
A NASA spokeswoman on Friday said that at least some of the International Space Station crew had said they were planning to watch the game. There are three Americans currently on the ISS — astronauts Joe Acaba, Mark Vande Hei, and Scott Tingle. No word on rooting interests, but Tingle is from Massachusetts.
The technology is there. Crew members, who can watch what they like while off-duty, request programming from Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and it’s uploaded to their laptops. Because the ISS operates on Greenwich Mean Time — five hours ahead of Philadelphia — they’d have to stay up later than usual to catch the action live. There’s almost no delay in transmission, but they’d likely endure at least one signal interruption during each of their 90-minute orbits of the earth.
In any case, NASA’s @Space_Station Twitter account will retweet anything the astronauts have to say about the Super Bowl. You can also follow them directly: Acaba tweets as @AstroAcaba, Vande Hei as @Astro_Sabot, and Tingle as @Astro_Maker.
There are plans for @Space_Station to also post images of Philadelphia, Boston, and Minneapolis from space on Sunday.
And from that distance, as Bette Midler might remind us, “the world looks blue and green.”