This could come as a surprise but there are signs that the Super Bowl may actually see viewers decline on Sunday, ending a three-year streak of setting new TV records.
Other kinds of TV shows can usually expect a loss of viewers year after year as the media landscape fragments, viewers get fatigue and time-shifted viewing spreads. But this has not been the case for the Super Bowl -- far and away the most watched TV event each year. The last time a TV program other than the Super Bowl averaged a 40.0 household rating, meaning 40% of households with TVs tuned in, it was the "Seinfeld" finale in 1998.
Super Bowl audiences have defied odds and logic, increasing each and every year from 2005 through 2012, an increase of 25 million viewers over seven seasons. And the last three Super Bowls have each been the most watched TV show in U.S. history, according to Nielsen.
The games have aired on three different networks and involved teams playing in small TV markets (Green Bay and New Orleans) or large markets (New York and Boston). In other words, unlike the World Series or NBA Finals, it really doesn't matter what teams are playing in the Super Bowl: It's going to attract a mass audience (especially if it's a close game, as many have been recently).
This season, however, ratings have fallen off for the NFL. Not alarmingly, but enough to predict that the Super Bowl may not surpass the record 111.3 million viewers the "big game" averaged last year. For the 2012 regular season, viewing was down on the three broadcast networks as well as ESPN's "Monday Night Football." Only the NFL's own cable network consisting of 13 night games reported an increase in viewers, aided by new distribution on Time Warner Cable's basic tier.
Nonetheless, "Sunday Night Football" is on a pace to be the highest rated prime-time show for the second consecutive year. "Monday Night Football" is cable's most watched program since it began on ESPN in 2006. And the Sunday afternoon games on Fox and CBS averaged more viewers than any prime-time show in the fourth quarter of last year.
Of greater concern, and a stronger indicator of how this year's Super Bowl may do, has been the fall-off in viewers in the NFL post-season in January 2013. The ten post-season games before the Super Bowl last year averaged a healthy 38.3 million viewers. This includes four games that averaged over 40 million viewers, with 57.6 million tuning in for the NFC Championship game between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers.
This year viewing was down by 9% for the ten games, averaging "only" 34.8 million viewers. Just the two conference championship games averaged over 40 million viewers.
Super Bowl XLVII will, by a wide margin, be the most watched program in TV this year. Some 99.3% of viewers watch the ads, according to a recent Kantar Media study. CBS is charging $3.7 to $3.8 million for thirty seconds, making it the most expensive ad package in TV history. And the Super Bowl will stream online for a second time, after attracting 2.1 million unique visitors last year. But comparing the Super Bowl this year to the recent past suggests that the audience for the "big game" may have begun to plateau -- albeit, again, at a very high level.