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Perfect Super Sunday storm — or, snowpocalypse — caps memorable NFL television season

By most accounts, Sunday’s Super Bowl couldn’t have been planned better if it was scripted by the minds behind CBS’ Survivor.

An upstart, Cinderella-story New Orleans Saints facing off against Super Bowl veteran Indianapolis Colts. A year of steady, substantial growth for NFL broadcasts, sparked by standout performances from veteran stars such as Brett Favre and the Colts’ Peyton Manning.

A crackling game that was competitive until the last quarter, complete with a quarterback shootout and crafty coaching moves (did Sean Peyton say they actually went over that onside kick play during open practice?)

And a surprise “snowpocalypse” blizzard parking everyone in the mid-Atlantic area indoors, in front of their TV sets, on Super Bowl weekend.

No wonder the game telecast Sunday emerged as U.S. TV’s most-watched program ever, outrating the hallowed 1983 finale of M*A*S*H by nearly 1-million viewers to pull 106.5-million pairs of eyeballs to CBS’ broadcast.

And now that a Super Bowl officially stands as American TV viewers’ all-time favorite broadcast ever, there’s just one question left:

What does it all mean?

“The NFL is the biggest entertainment property in the United States,” said Neil Pilson, a sports media consultant and former head of CBS Sports. “There may be dozens of entertainment shows, but the value of sports is that it’s totally unique…The fact that sports is a gathering place for attractive audiences is even more true now than 20 years ago – because people have so many more options.”

As Pilson admits, it is a little silly to try comparing the world of 1983 scripted television to the modern day. Even though there are exponentially more entertainment choices for TV viewers – indicating that Sunday’s Super Bowl beat long odds snaring such a large crowd — there also are many more people in the country and many more homes with televisions.

But it’s tough to escape the notion of a corner turned on Sunday; the moment when, looking back, sports broadcasting, television and the NFL was never quite the same as it was before.

Here are a few lessons learned from my side of the ottoman:

That old saw about watching the Super Bowl just for the commercials needs to go away for good: Each year, it seems the actual game has gotten better, while the hallowed commercials used to pull in fair-weather football fans have gotten more predictable, more vulgar and more desperate.

(By the end of the commercial where everyone was speaking through an auto tuner, I wanted to hunt down the guy who invented the gizmo and sacrifice him to the Super Bowl gods myself).

This year, the conventional wisdom about Super Bowls – as blowout game made entertaining only by the spectacle – was turned on its head. Even the most talked-about ad before the game – a head fake of a commercial by Focus on the Family and Tim Tebow that counted on breathless press reports to insinuate an anti-abortion message CBS likely kept out of its actual ad copy – turned out to be a gauzy trifle unworthy of the controversy.

Put it this way; my wife and family started the evening watching the commercials and ended it watching the game.

The NFL better work out its looming contract fights between players and owners: Sunday’s game provided an eloquent argument for maintaining the sport’s profit-sharing status quo; a team from a city where citizens were dying in its stadium five years ago grew competitive enough to stop a quarterback developing an almost unstoppable reputation.

The end result was an outcome that served the institution of professional football best: an unpredictable, exciting, emotional capper to a season lurching from the thrill of Favre’s return to the cold chill of Manning’s defeat.

Why upset that applecart just to make a few rich team owners even richer?

If this Super Bowl can’t revive the flagging TV advertising market, maybe nothing will: CBS still seemed to struggle with advertising in the big game, despite seeing NBC present what was then the most-watched Super Bowl ever in 2009 (indeed, CBS this year also set a record for the amount of time devoted to commercials – with 48 minutes given over to advertisements, according to the research firm Kantar Media).

This has been a turnaround from the way things have often worked for the TV business in past years. Before the recession really decimated media, broadcasters could argue that TV shows drawing fewer viewers still had value as the biggest platforms in a shrinking television universe.

But that argument wasn’t enough to keep longtime Super Bowl players like Fed Ex, Pepsi and General Motors in the game. “The Super Bowl has been a big example of ad rates not going up, despite big viewership,” said Robert Seidman of the TV ratings Web site TVBytheNumbers.com. “But if the economy stays flat and the ad market stays flat, Fox (who gets the Super Bowl in 2011) could be a bigger winner.”

The sports world better savor this football season, because it’s hard to imagine the stars aligning like this again: The NFL saw an amazing confluence of events unite to make this year’s Super Bowl a superior spectacle – including Favre’s emergence as a figure reviled as much as admired; several teams enjoying undefeated seasons for a good while; a crushing recession that made cheap televised entertainment more attractive to potential viewers and the weather.

After watching the way NFL games boosted ESPN’s ratings and provided a rare bright spot on fourth-place NBC’s schedule, Pilson noted that broadcaster gain a lot from featuring football games, even when the costs for such broadcasts exceed the advertising revenue.

“I always said it was a mistake to look at just the four corners of a sports property – whether the ad revenue balances out the fees,” he said. “As a broadcaster, you’re a stronger business with the NFL. Because those attractive audiences are even harder to get.”

Seidman had a simpler take on it all. “The big winner here is probably the sports fans,” he said. “For three years running we’ve gotten really good (Super Bowl) games.”

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at www.blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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