CBS came close to matching the audience levels of the two most-watched television events of all time Sunday night, turning an electrical failure in the New Orleans Superdome into a likely ratings advantage for its coverage of Super Bowl XLVII.
The power failure also provided a subtitle for what will surely be among the most memorable games in National Football League history: “The Blackout Bowl.”
The game between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers attracted an average audience of 108.4 million viewers, down from the 111.3 million who watched the game last February, and the 111 million the previous year.
By most analyses, CBS’ telecast benefited from the blackout, which occurred 90 seconds into the second half. With the game looking like a rout _Baltimore had just scored to widen its lead to 28-6 — the possibility loomed that a significant number of viewers would tune out.
But the blackout stirred a torrent of comment on social media, reviving interest, and the break in the action may have led to a change in momentum as the 49ers staged a furious rally that produced a close and thrilling finish. The last 17 minutes of the game were the most watched, with a total of 113.9 million viewers.
“We went from the depths of having a possible blowout, to the bizarre scene of half the stadium going dark, to a game that went right down to the wire,” Sean McManus, the president of CBS Sports, said Monday.
Even though it rekindled viewers’ interest, the blackout presented a logistical and reporting challenge for CBS. Up in a sky box inside the stadium, Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS, said he too was worried about the impact of a one-sided game, “and then the lights suddenly went out and everything became sort of surreal.”
CBS did not know at that moment what had happened or how it might change the game — or the ratings. The network was faced with trying to maintain its live coverage, with all but three or four cameras no longer functioning, and report on the cause of the blackout.
McManus said the CBS production team learned that some hand-held cameras on the sidelines had power, so Steve Tasker, a sideline reporter, was charged with presenting the first report on what was transpiring. Then the network started setting up its team of studio hosts in a position on the floor of the Superdome.
The network was never in danger of having to go dark, Moonves said, noting that the CBS News studio in New York could gear up at a moment’s notice. The network could have transferred the news coverage to that studio if it had to, he said. In this case, CBS also had a production studio available in New Orleans to service the company’s cable channel, the CBS Sports Network.
Additionally, a CBS News unit was also in the NFL control box, monitoring the game for a report scheduled to run Wednesday on the new program on Showtime called “60 Minutes Sports.” Its reporter, Armen Keteyian, was able to document the reactions of NFL officials but was not able to question them as they pursued both the reason for the power problem and an estimated time for its return.
Moonves said he was told quickly that the blackout had something to do with a power source being overtaxed and “needing to cool down” before play could resume.
“We were told it would be 20 minutes,” he said. “We knew we wouldn’t be down for hours.”
He said the initial explanations for the blackout were dominated by rumors and jokes.
“We heard everything from hackers to people who had bet on San Francisco to Beyonce draining all the energy out of the place at halftime,” Moonves said.
The NFL made a statement about how soon the game would be back and CBS reported that on the air.
McManus, asked whether CBS had been aggressive enough in seeking information about the blackout itself, said the network was aware that “people would be saying CBS should be giving us some information. We were asking everybody we knew. But we just had no information at that point.”
When the game resumed, the 49ers mounted a comeback that got them to the 5-yard line with time running out and four chances to go ahead.
“It doesn’t get much more thrilling than that,” Moonves said, “so it worked out OK for us.”
The not-so-good news was that CBS planned to deliver a large audience to its series “Elementary” after the game. But “Elementary” did not get on the air until 11:11 p.m. in the East, the latest hour on record for a show after the Super Bowl.
So the ratings for the show will not even count on CBS’ prime-time record. “Elementary” managed to attract 20.8 million viewers, the second-smallest audience since 1992 for a post-Super Bowl game. It topped only an episode of “Alias” on ABC in 2003, which was also delayed past 11 p.m. in the East and drew only 17.3 million viewers.
But CBS got more Super Bowl minutes in prime time — as well as a game to remember.
“It was like there was another event inside an event,” Moonves said.