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Super Bowl XLVI makes history, sets precedents for sports broadcasts

The numbers, when you think about them, are staggering.

Last Sunday, 111.3 million people sat in front of their TV screens at home to watch Super Bowl XLVI, the most eyeballs ever attached to a single television broadcast.

It was 300,000 people more than the next most-watched TV broadcast, which just happened to be last year’s Super Bowl.

Nearly 50 percent of all homes in America with TV sets were tuned to the game – 71 percent of all homes with sets actually turned on – and none of these figures include the number of people who watched in public places such as bars, which Nielsen doesn’t measure.

So a lot of people watched this game. And a lot of precedents were set in the process.

In fact, as I watched the game unfold, a host of ideas came to mind as abject lessons taught by the power of the last, great event to pull us all in front of our electronic hearths at the same time.

Here, now, are the Lessons I Learned From The Super Bowl:

Online streams don’t subtract audience, they add to it – NBC’s decision to stream the game online proved to be another massive success, with 2.1-million users signing up for the website stream, making it the most-watched single-game sports event ever online, according to the network. There were no commercials or halftime show online – probably because the network didn’t have the rights to present that material there. But that helped focus the action on the game, with an array of camera angles each user could choose from, allowing the stone football fan to immerse themselves in the contest. Take that, naysayers.

Bob Costas is worth his weight in Lombardi trophies – Perhaps only Costas could have led a pregame interview where he pushed NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a bit on the issue of concussions and player health in the middle of TV’s biggest party for football. His interview with Goodell had been taped earlier in the week at a town hall show in Indianapolis, which also included players who have sued the league over how their health issues have been handled. It was great to see NBC devote a little pre-game time to an important subject that doesn’t necessarily make the sports look wonderful.

Pregame feature stories don’t have to be mindless pabulum – On Sunday, I saw one of the best Super Bowl pregame feature stories in a long while, focused on Steve Gleason, a former player with the New Orleans Saints who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The malady, in which nerves slowly lose the power to control muscles, makes it tough for those who have it to walk, talk and, eventually, to breathe. NBC’s look at how quickly ALS affected Gleason, though his spirit and outlook remains strong, told an emotional story without getting maudlin. Once again, a fine blueprint for future efforts.

If the game is exciting, nobody uses all those social media knickknacks – I found trying to keep up with all the Facebook sites, Shazam connections, smartphone apps and Twitter hash tags connected to the Big Game was mostly a pain in the end zone. Truth is, most of that stuff was only attractive when the game got really boring (okay, I did use a URL to find the new, full-size trailer for the Avengers movie; once a geek, always a geek). But if you’re watching the game with friends and/or family, the only time you’re really going to surf onto that other stuff is if the game starts sucking wind – because when the commercials come on, well, you’ve got to watch the commercials.

Releasing the Super Bowl commercials early online was mostly a mistake this time around – Last year’s Volkswagen commercial with the kid in the Darth Vader costume, which became the game’s most-liked commercial after it was released days early online, fooled advertisers into thinking they could preview all their cool commercials on the Internet and get similar results. But the lack of surprise sapped the juice out of most ads, so we would up talking most about Clint Eastwood’s advertisement for Chrysler, which was a surprise, instead of Matthew Broderick reprising Ferris Bueller or Jerry Seinfeld trying to give away the Soup Nazi.

Tim Tebow will be one heck of a commentator when he stops playing – Watching the Denver Broncos rookie quarterback make the media rounds, Tebow came off like the guy who benefited most from the Super Bowl who wasn’t playing in it. His comments about the teams and his own performance in the playoffs were appropriately humble and articulate, with no indication he was even close to fazed by the sports media world’s frenzy over his every move. As a Floridian who remembers his days leading the University of Florida’s Gators, I’m hoping he holds onto that humility and sense of proportion as his NFL ride gets even wilder.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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