Super Bowl XLII eclipses viewing records with 97.5 million watching last-minute win

The audience peaked at 105.7 million viewers during the fourth quarter.

.NEW YORK (AP) – The 97.5 million viewers who saw the New York Giants’ last-minute win over the New England Patriots made it the most-watched Super Bowl ever and second biggest event in American television history.

Only the “MASH” series finale in 1983, with 106 million viewers, was seen by more people, Nielsen Media Research said Monday. Sunday’s game eclipsed the previous Super Bowl record of 94.08 million, set when Dallas defeated Pittsburgh in 1996.

This year’s game had almost all the ingredients Fox could have hoped for: a tight contest with a thrilling finish involving a team that was attempting to make history as the NFL’s first unbeaten team since 1972.

But the Giants ended New England’s bid for perfection, 17-14. Throughout the game, the teams were never separated by more than a touchdown.

“You might like your equation going in, but you still need some breaks going your way,” said Ed Goren, Fox sports president. The closeness of the game probably added a couple million viewers to the telecast’s average; the audience peaked at 105.7 million viewers between 9:30 and 10 p.m. EST – during the fourth quarter.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning won bragging rights over his brother: Last year’s win by Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts was seen by 93.2 million people, now the third most popular Super Bowl. Manning was set to appear on David Letterman’s “Late Show” on Monday, but travel delays in Arizona pushed his appearance back to Wednesday.

An eye-popping 81 percent of all TV sets on in the Boston area Sunday were tuned in to the game. In New York, the audience share was 67 percent.

There were signs even before game time that Fox could be headed for a record. The opportunity for a team to make history with football’s first 19-0 record was a powerful draw. The Giants and Patriots also had a tight contest in late December that drew strong ratings.

The Giants’ underdog run had also captivated the nation’s largest media market, making up for the only potential weakness in the event as a drawing card: the lack of geographical diversity in the competing teams.

There were past Super Bowls with higher ratings, topped by the 1982 game between San Francisco and Cincinnati (49.1 rating, 73 share). That indicates a larger percentage of homes with televisions were watching the game. But since the American population has increased, along with the number of people with TVs, the actual number of people watching this year was higher.