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A viewership record for Super Sunday?

The undefeated New England Patriots aren't taking the only shot at history this weekend. There's a strong chance that this could be the most-watched Super Bowl ever.
Super Bowl Football
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will attempt to lead his team to a perfect 19-0 record on Sunday. Fox is aiming for a viewership record.Charlie Riedel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The undefeated New England Patriots aren't taking the only shot at history this weekend. There's a strong chance that this could be the most-watched Super Bowl ever.

The record Fox will be shooting for is the 94.08 million viewers who watched the Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in January 1996, according to Nielsen Media Research. Last year's victory by the Indianapolis Colts came closest with 93.2 million.

The biggest draw is the Patriots themselves, as they attempt to become the first undefeated NFL team since the 1972 Dolphins — and secure near-unanimous acclaim as the best pro football team ever.

"This has a very good chance," said Brad Adgate, research chief for the Madison Avenue firm Horizon Media.

While the Patriots' quest for history will be the focus, they must beat the New York Giants, who represent the biggest television market in the country. The Giants' underdog run to the Super Bowl has captivated its fan base, and the NFC championship victory over the Green Bay Packers had the biggest audience for that game since 1995, according to Nielsen Media Research.

There's also the fresh memory of the thrilling game the Giants and Patriots played on the last night of the regular season, where New England had to come from behind to keep their unbeaten streak alive. That game was seen by 34.5 million people, the most-watched NFL regular season game since 1990.

Fox says that setting a record is possible. "There are a lot of factors that go into a huge number like this," said Bill Wanger, research chief for Fox sports. "Having the number one market isn't necessarily a lock."

Actually, TV networks prefer a contest with a bit more geographic diversity — a West Coast team playing an East Coast team, instead of two teams from the Northeast.

The biggest factor in keeping viewers tuned in is the competitiveness of the game. A rout is generally bad news, although recent history is on Fox's side. After a run of lackluster Super Bowl games, this decade has seen some good ones. The playoffs leading up the Super Bowl, capped by the Giants' overtime victory over Green Bay, also bode well.

The best thing for Fox is a close game with the Giants leading, but the Patriots still with a chance at the end.

The element of history might keep viewers tuned in even if the Patriots are blowing out the Giants, although the big victory margins the team was racking up early in the year have diminished.

"If New England blows out the Giants, this may be one time when ratings late in the game will not decline," said Steve Sternberg, ratings expert for the ad-buying firm Magna Global. "The only thing that might prevent near-record ratings is if the Giants blow out the Patriots. But even that might keep viewers tuned in."

Other, esoteric factors might help, too. Bad weather across the country could keep people in front of their TVs, in case they were tempted to do something else.

The Hollywood writers strike might leave viewers a little more starved than usual for something good to watch, Adgate said.

The Super Bowl is the most popular television event of the year. This year's game will almost certainly fail to match the most popular television event of all time, the 1983 finale of the TV series "M-A-S-H," which drew an estimated 125 million people.

Even if this week's game cracks the viewership record, it is still not likely earn the best Super Bowl rating — because of factors out of the game's control. The ratings record of 49.1 — meaning just under half of the nation's TV sets were tuned in to the game — was set for the 1982 game between San Francisco and Cincinnati. The simple explosion in the number of TV networks available for people to watch makes that a hard number to approach.

The biggest winners may be the game's advertisers, even as the cost for a 30-second ad reaches a record $2.7 million.

"It could be construed as a bargain," Adgate said. "Outside of `American Idol,' there's no real top-rated show that advertisers can bank on right now. Even the Oscars are in a state of flux, and that's always been called the Super Bowl for women."