It's interesting, when I look at the actual data, I wind up in a different spot than Mr. Gorman. Rather than going back and forth with Bill in a comments duel, I'll just offer up a differing opinion and include a data table for the last 20 years.
Very quickly I get to this place: throw out any kind of thinking that involves "it just seems logical that...". Because whatever that logic is, it doesn't matter. The Super Bowl transcends logic when St. Louis vs. Tennessee has more viewers than a Super Bowl featuring the New York football Giants.
Further, I don't get as gushy over the strength and power of the Super Bowl or praise it's consistently increasing viewership. Make no mistake, the Super Bowl is an event. It's still a ratings beast. In fact, there's nothing beastlier out there to compete with it. That said, the NFL has not reached new record-high viewership since a January 1996 match-up featuring the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers generated just over 94 million viewers.
|Super Bowl||Date||Network||Rating||$/30 Sec Ad||# Homes (000)||Persons 2+ (000)||NFC||AFC|
|XLII||Feb 3 2008*||FOX||43.1||NA||48,665||97,448||New York Giants||New England|
|XLI||Feb 4 2007 *||CBS||42.6||$2,385,365||47,505||93,184||Chicago||Indianapolis|
|XL||Feb 5 2006 *||ABC||41.6||$2,500,000||45,867||90,745||Seattle||Pittsburgh|
|XXXIX||Feb 6 2005||FOX||41.1||$2,400,000||45,081||86,072||Philadelphia||New England|
|XXXVIII||Feb 1 2004||CBS||41.4||$2,302,200||44,908||89,795||Carolina||New England|
|XXXVII||Jan 26 2003||ABC||40.7||$2,200,000||43,433||88,637||Tampa Bay||Oakland|
|XXXVI||Feb 3 2002||FOX||40.4||$2,200,000||42,664||86,801||St. Louis||New England|
|XXXV||Jan 28 2001||CBS||40.4||$2,200,000||41,270||84,335||NY Giants||Baltimore|
|XXXIV||Jan 30 2000||ABC||43.3||$2,100,000||43,618||88,465||St. Louis||Tennessee|
|XXXIII||Jan 31 1999||FOX||40.2||$1,600,000||39,992||83,720||Atlanta||Denver|
|XXXII||Jan 25 1998||NBC||44.5||$1,291,100||43,630||90,000||Green Bay||Denver|
|XXXI||Jan 26 1997||FOX||43.3||$1,200,000||42,000||87,870||Green Bay||New England|
|XXX||Jan 28 1996||NBC||46.0||$1,085,000||44,145||94,080||Dallas||Pittsburgh|
|XXIX||Jan 29 1995||ABC||41.3||$1,150,000||39,400||83,420||San Francisco||San Diego|
|XXVIII||Jan 30 1994||NBC||45.5||$900,000||42,860||90,000||Dallas||Buffalo|
|XXVII||Jan 31 1993||NBC||45.1||$850,000||41,990||90,990||Dallas||Buffalo|
|XXVI||Jan 26 1992||CBS||40.3||$850,000||37,120||79,590||Washington||Buffalo|
|XXV||Jan 27 1991||ABC||41.9||$800,000||39,010||79,510||NY Giants||Buffalo|
|XXIV||Jan 28 1990||CBS||39.0||$700,400||35,920||73,852||San Francisco||Denver|
|XXIII||Jan 22 1989||NBC||43.5||$675,000||39,320||81,590||San Francisco||Cincinnati|
|XXII||Jan 31 1988||ABC||41.9||$645,000||37,120||80,140||Washington||Denver|
|XXI||Jan 25 1987||CBS||45.8||$600,000||40,030||87,190||NY Giants||Denver|
What's notable about the Super Bowl - and this is extremely notable - is that it's the only TV franchise with a chance at actually breaking a 10+ year old record. It's not going out on a limb to predict this will happen. But the Patriots are not just chasing the Giants, they're chasing history, so it's a special occasion. Without the historic quest, let's say the exact same Super Bowl but with a 16-2 New England Patriots - I'd almost give it no chance at all of breaking the 1996 record.
But with Golden Boy Tom Brady and the villainous Bill Belechick in pursuit of 19-0, it's easy to predict record-high viewership for this year's Super Bowl. For the NFL, these are the good old days. Unless the Patriots are again 18-0 at this time next year, you can also mark me down now for a noticeable decrease in TV ratings for the Super Bowl that airs in January 2009.
Verdict: The Super Bowl is definitely still super, but outside of questing for perfection, its best days seem behind it.
Nielsen Ratings Data: ©2008 Nielsen Media Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved