Arts & Culture

The Super Bowl Effect: How Do Television Networks Capitalize on The Big Game?

This Sunday millions of viewers from around the world will be watching the Super Bowl, which is annually the largest television audience for any single program. Retaining that audience for the prized postgame time slot is the goal and challenge for networks broadcasting the big game, but is it possible to predict what shows will take flight from that prominent launch pad and which will flop?

Philip Salas and Larry Epstein, who study and teach about the television industry in Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, have examined the history of the Super Bowl Effect on what CBS CEO Les Moonves calls “the greatest broadcast day of the year.”

Salas, who has more than 30 years of experience in television research and sales, has looked at the Super Bowl lead out – the show that directly follows the game on the same network and is the most vaunted time slot of the year- and the strategies networks use to retain viewers after the final whistle blows.  This year, CBS is putting an episode of the freshman drama “Elementary” in the coveted time slot following Super Bowl XLVII between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers.

“In the 1990s the networks used this slot to premiere new shows and had mixed reviews. FOX’s ‘Family Guy’ and NBC’s ‘Homicide’ both debuted after the Super Bowl and went on to be hits; while ABC’s ‘Davis Rules,’ in 1991, and NBC’s ‘Good Life,’ in 1994, turned out to be flops,” Salas said.

Putting established shows in the timeslot hasn’t always guaranteed success either, according to Salas. While a two-part episode of NBC’s “Friends” retained an all-time best 54-percent of the Super Bowl’s audience in 1996, FOX’s “Malcolm in the Middle” only kept a quarter of the audience in 2002 and “Glee” managed just 24 percent in 2011.

Salas also points out that the score of the game might not be the best predictor of how many people will keep watching when it’s over.  The historic 54-percent audience retention by “Friends” in 1996 followed a close game between Dallas and Pittsburg (27-17), but the poor retentions of “The Office” (23 percent in 2009) and “Malcolm in the Middle” (25 percent in 2002) both came after games that were decided by six points or less. Conversely, in 2001 Baltimore beat the New York Giants by 27 points and CBS’s “Survivor” still held 54 percent of the audience for its Australian Outback season premiere. And despite a blowout 45-point win by San Francisco over Denver in 1990, CBS’s “Grand Slam” managed to retain 42 percent of the Super Bowl audience.

While Salas points out that quite a few variables play into the share retention equation –including size and demography of the Super Bowl teams’ home markets, the type and length of show, the length of the game and what time it ends and peoples’ familiarity with the lead out show—no matter who wins the game, the time slot still can’t be beat.

Epstein, who has more than 25 years of management experience in television and is the head of the College’s Arts & Entertainment Enterprise department, has looked at the many and varied strategies networks employ to ensure a maximum return on their investment in the Super Bowl broadcast.  According to Epstein, the massive ad revenue is only the beginning of the networks’ payday.

“To maximize long-term benefits you’ll see a lot more cross promotion of shows and other businesses owned by the network,” Epstein said. “We saw this during the Olympics when Comcast/NBC Universal used the sporting event broadcasts to promote NBC’s shows, Comcast Xfinity service and a variety of Universal’s movies and music.”

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking further with Philip Salas or Larry Epstein can contact me at bef29@drexel.edu.

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