Super Bowl denies smaller ratings for big events
Super Bowl Sunday comes in the middle of the ongoing Winter Olympics and just days after the nominations for the Oscarswhich will take place on March 27. All three TV shows have historically put the “broad” into “broadcast,” attracting mass audiences for media events that have become shared national experiences.
But based on Nielsen ratings, viewership for two of those events — the Olympics and the Oscars — has halved, or worse, from the previous iteration, and is even more dramatic since the when networks and the nation were less fragmented.
The Oscars, for example, drew around 10.4 million viewers last year, down from 23.6 million in 2020 and 39.3 million 10 years ago.
The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics was down 44% from four years ago, and the 12.3 million viewers on average for the first four nights accounted for about half of the Pyeongchang Games in 2018.
Conversely, the recent NFC and AFC Championship Games achieved viewership equivalent to a touchdown dance, averaging 49.6 million viewers, up 10% from last year and up 16% compared to 2019. The matches have been the most-watched events since (understandably) last year. Super Bowl.
The big game has the largest audience of any event each year and has mostly maintained, or increased in some years, its viewership. Tampa Bay’s lopsided win last year drew an estimated 93 million viewers, down a bit from Kansas City’s closer win a year earlier, which was watched by an estimated 101 million viewers. A decade ago – not just a decade but an eon in media terms – an average of about 111 million people watched two East Coast titans, the New York Giants and the New England Patriots, face off. .
This era has seen huge changes in the world of media. Ten years ago, the networks still had hits like “American Idol” (but the top-rated prime-time show was still “Sunday Night Football”). Today’s television hits – culturally, certainly, and increasingly quantitatively – are as likely to come from Netflix as from network television. Streaming has become a torrent of television options over the past few years, as evidenced by the fact that Netflix took home the most awards at last year’s Emmys, led by “The Crown” reigning over the top categories.
Netflix also had more Oscar nods than any other studio, with its “The Power of the Dog” garnering the most nominations with 12, making it the clear favorite to win the Best Picture award. While the beautiful film may deserve the honor, it certainly wasn’t the most popular picture of the last year – that accolade went to “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” It was one of the few films to inspire people to leave their homes to go to theaters in another cautious year with COVID that saw around $4.5 billion in box office sales – in up 113% from the COVID shutdown year of 2020, but still only about 39% from pre-pandemic 2019.
The pandemic hasn’t just brought down cinema; fans are banned, for the most part, from the Olympics, as China’s zero COVID policies mean negligible attendance at many venues, eliminating the contagious fan response that translates to viewers at home. The NFL, conversely, played to crowded stadiums and packed couches in front of the board – time-traveling, at least for three hours on a Sunday afternoon (and, OK, Monday and Sunday and Thursday night ), to a pre-pandemic normal.
The Super Bowl’s superlative hold on America is due to many factors, including “there are so many ceremonies and cultural norms and rituals” around it, said Marcus Collins, clinical assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. Collins, who is also head of planning at advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy in New York, added that people “like to depend on common standards and have life revolve” around them.
Other reasons, Douglas Hartmana sociology professor at the University of Minnesota said in an email exchange, include “its week-by-week big game structure; its connection to local cultures in the city and colleges and universities. And how everything that translates so well to television and that, in turn, we have built a whole public infrastructure and media systems to ensure that remains the case for years to come.”
Beyond building public infrastructure, there is building private infrastructure, including network television. As much as the NFL needs networks to cement its cultural and commercial grip, network television needs the one reliable entity that can belie today’s atomized audiences to create a mass media event – and marketing of mass – who scores every Sunday, whether in the regular season, playoffs or the Super Bowl itself.
The Olympics was a somewhat similar tentpole, albeit over a fortnight instead of four quarters (and a thrilling extension, if this year’s playoffs are any indication) of the Super Bowl. And while they’re still relatively well rated, they haven’t been able to capture the country lately, apart from a few marquee competitions, like in previous years. “It’s part of a larger unease about the Olympic movement itself that’s quite troubling to Olympic advocates and idealists,” Hartmann said.
And America’s domestic pessimism could impact its international interests, Collins suggested. Citing “the vitriol in social discourse,” Collins said the country “is quite divided in a very visual and visceral way, so the idea of rooting for America doesn’t seem to be at the top of mind or on the tip of the tongue for the country.”
There are other dynamics driving mundane Olympics rankings, including justifiable outrage over China’s human rights record, the early struggles of some high-profile athletes, and the ability to grab results and highlights in real time from the virtual world of YouTube, TikTok and other online outlets. And then there’s the bleak drumbeat of wrangling over judging and doping scandals.
The Oscars have their controversies too, especially as some feel ostracized by the increasingly political nature of the Oscars. The NFL has its scandals too, including concussions and running repercussions that only escalated after Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores was fired, alleging racial discrimination as well as pressure to lose. matches to get a better draft pick. But the league looks far from beleaguered and thriving thanks to record TV rights revenue, fueled in part by booming gambling betting.
In a crowded cultural landscape, people often follow the crowd and also fall out of it when the crowd does. “There are fewer people around the campfire, so there are fewer people around the campfire,” Collins said, speaking euphemistically of the Oscars and Olympics viewership erosion. For the Super Bowl, though, “as long as people keep talking about it, and it shows up in our News Feed, and it’s something that my friends, my community engage in, then I feel the need to be involved.”
Comparing the Big Game and the Games, Hartmann said that “one is national and uniquely American, the other is international in both attendance and attendance. In the case of the former, the lack of other shared events and a common popular culture only makes football and the Super Bowl more unique, powerful and important than ever.” With regard to the Olympics, Hartmann concluded: “I fear that what is lost is not only the national community or the solidarity that can come from sporting competitions and victories, but the greater international awareness and global understanding that can, in its best moments, come with viewing and participating in the Olympics.”
Indeed, in a nation and a world torn apart by divisions, something is lost when there are fewer people around the campfire, whether it is the Olympic flame, the glow of a great film about big screen or any other cultural touchpoint. Super Bowl Sunday is great. But by definition, it is a day when we could use supported shared experiences to better connect with each other.
John Rash is an editorial writer and columnist for the Star Tribune. The Rash report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.