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CBS: 'Super' Sunday, so-so February

The Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears are a favorable Super Bowl match-up for CBS. Will that help the network attract more younger viewers?

By Paul R. La Monica, editor at large

NEW YORK ( -- CBS is counting on a "Super"-sized audience to tune into this Sunday's big game between the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears.

But will Super Bowl XLI lead CBS (Charts) to a ratings victory in the crucial February sweeps period?

Nearly 91 million people watched the Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL last year. Will more tune in to see Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts take on the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI?
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CBS's ratings for the month certainly will be lifted by the Super Bowl. Last year, nearly 91 million people watched the game, which was broadcast on Walt Disney (Charts)-owned ABC. That was the largest audience in more than a decade, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.

This year though, some TV experts are predicting even bigger ratings. The draw of Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts star quarterback, combined with the fact that Chicago is the third-largest television market, has led some to predict that this year's Super Bowl may wind up being watched by more than 100 million people in the U.S.

But is the 100 million viewer talk just hype?

One media buyer, who asked not to be named, disputed the notion that 100 million would tune in, saying that even though having a team from a bigger market should help ratings, it's hard to get a significant boost since so many people are going to watch the game regardless of the match-up.

And Gary Carr, senior vice president and director of national broadcast with TargetCast tcm, a media buying firm in New York, also said he'd be surprised if the ratings for Super Bowl XLI were much higher than last year's.

"The Super Bowl has done the same ratings, give or take a few tenths of a percentage point, for the past decade," Carr said, pointing out that between 40 and 42 percent of all U.S. households have tuned in to the game during the past few years.

Carr added that having a big market team in the Super Bowl is not a guarantee of success either.

To that end, the New York Giants were in Super Bowl XXXV against the Baltimore Ravens in 2001. That game -- which, unfortunately for this Big Blue-loving columnist, was a lopsided victory by the Ravens -- was watched by 84.3 million viewers, making it the least-watched Super Bowl this decade.

Still, it goes without question that the Super Bowl will wind up being the most-watched TV event this year. And that could help boost CBS's overall ratings this month, particularly with the younger 18-49 viewers that advertisers lust after.

So it will be interesting to see what kind of ratings lift CBS' "Criminal Minds" show will get in the weeks after the Super Bowl. CBS is airing a special Super Bowl-themed episode of "Criminal Minds," which regularly airs on Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. EST, after the game.

Last year, the coveted post-Super Bowl spot did wonders for ABC's "Grey's Anatomy."

The episode that aired after Super Bowl XL was watched by 37.9 million viewers and helped give the show, which at the time was a moderate but not spectacular ratings success, the type of exposure needed to make it the pop culture phenomenon and ratings juggernaut that it now is.

"Criminal Minds" could use that type of lift. According to figures from Nielsen Media Research, "Criminal Minds" is in a tie with two other programs as the 11th-most watched show overall but it is only the 25th most-watched among 18-49 year olds.

"The big thing for CBS is to get buzz around their shows. Many of them are mostly unsung ratings heroes, especially with younger viewers," said Jordan Breslow, director of broadcast research with MediaCom, a media buying firm in New York.

Another media buyer said that "Criminal Minds" should see a nice bump in its ratings on Sunday but that the post-Super Bowl slot won't turn the show into a breakout hit a la "Grey's Anatomy."

"I don't expect 'Criminal Minds' to get anything near what 'Grey's' did last year primarily because 'Criminal Minds' skews to older females and the Super Bowl skews more to younger males," said Shari Anne Brill, vice president of programming with Carat USA, a media buying firm in New York.

So despite the Super Bowl, some predict that CBS could wind up finishing in third with 18-49 viewers in February. ABC, in addition to "Grey's Anatomy" has other hit shows such as "Desperate Housewives" In addition, "Lost" also returns to the network's schedule in February.

What's more, ABC will be airing the Academy Awards on February 25, an event that Breslow dubbed "the Super Bowl for women."

Then there's News Corp.'s (Charts) Fox. The return of "American Idol," is likely to propel the network to the top spot with younger viewers. Ratings for the season premiere in mid-January hit a record high, an astonishing feat for a show that's now in its sixth season.

Still, CBS should be able to boast that it is the most-watched network in February.

One media buyer said that since CBS's shows tend to have an older audience, "Idol" is a bigger concern for ABC and General Electric (Charts)-owned NBC, which has enjoyed a ratings revival this season thanks to the hit new show "Heroes."

"Assuming 'American Idol' is still idolized to the same level it has been so far, Fox will be in a fairly competitive position. But CBS has been the most immune to the 'Idol' effect because of its older-skewing dramas," said John Rash, senior vice president and director of media negotiations with Campbell Mithun, a media buying firm in Minneapolis.

And with CBS charging as much as $2.6 million for a 30-second spot from the likes of Anheuser-Busch (Charts), Pepsico (Charts) and General Motors (Charts), it's clear that the Super Bowl should be a financial boon for the network.

But considering that "Idol" airs at least twice a week (sometimes three times) in February, big ratings for the Super Bowl won't be enough to lead CBS past Fox with younger viewers.

"The Super Bowl should eclipse last year's number for total audience," Breslow said. "But this is only 220 some-odd minutes averaged over the rest of the month. So it won't help CBS overall that much with 18-49 year-olds," Breslow said.