Only the 1996 Super Bowl between Dallas and Pittsburgh, which had 94.1 million viewers, had a bigger audience, according to Nielsen Media Research on Monday. Behind that 1996 game and the M-A-S-H series finale, Sunday's game was the third most-watched program in television history.
The presence of the Colts quarterback, one of the game's most popular players, and a major-market team from Chicago undoubtedly juiced the ratings.
"The story line was about as good as you could have hoped for," said CBS Sports President Sean McManus. The game was shown on CBS, a division of CBS Corp.
It was the highest-rated Super Bowl game since St. Louis-Tennessee in 2000. The ratings were lower this year than in 2000, but, because there are more homes with television sets than seven years ago, there were more people watching. Last year's Super Bowl between Pittsburgh and Seattle drew 90.7 million viewers.
CBS was also lucky, in a sense, that the Colts' 29-17 victory over the Bears was closer on the scoreboard than it appeared on the screen. Although Indianapolis was dominating the game, Chicago was close enough until the end to have a chance to win, which kept viewers interested.
CBS wasn't so lucky that the game was played in a driving rainstorm.
"It was very difficult," McManus said. "We lost a number of cameras during the telecast."
A camera suspended over the field on cables had to come down, and one sideline camera was knocked out of commission because it overheated when covered in canvas, he said. Camera operators were constantly wiping raindrops from lenses.
Despite the huge audience, the Super Bowl didn't provide much of a jolt to the CBS drama "Criminal Minds," which was given the choice time slot following the game. "Criminal Minds" was seen by 26.2 million viewers. While that's the biggest audience the second-year show has ever delivered, it dwarfs the 38.1 million people who saw "Grey's Anatomy" after ABC's telecast of the game last year.
According to another measuring service, the most-watched moment of the CBS broadcast wasn't Manning's lone touchdown pass, the interception and touchdown run by Kelvin Hayden or even Prince's electrifying halftime show. It was the Bud Light ad featuring Carlos Mencia and a language class, according to Tivo.
The digital recorder company's measurement includes not only people who watched the commercial live, but those who froze the set and went back and watched the commercial, said Todd Juenger, vice president and general manager for audience research.
More viewers with digital recorders tend to replay the Super Bowl commercials than game action perhaps because broadcasters offer plenty of replays of game action on their own, he said.
The most popular minute of the actual game, representing most Tivo replays, was after a personal foul was committed following an Indianapolis kickoff in the third quarter, he said.