ARLINGTON, Texas -- Of all the numbers floating around town this week, from $3 million (estimated price of a 30-second commercial for Super Bowl XLV) to $15,946 (the cost for a seventh-row seat on the 50-yard line at Cowboys Stadium, according to the NFL Ticket Exchange by Ticketmaster) to nine (the low in degrees on Wednesday, the coldest temperature in Jerry Jones country since 1989), here is the one that Fox Sports executives have their eyes on:
That's how many people viewed last year's Super Bowl on CBS, the most-watched program in the history of America, topping the nearly 106 million who watched the finale of M*A*S*H in 1983.
Can Super Bowl XLV set a new viewership record? Privately, Fox executives concede that a tight fourth-quarter game could put Super Bowl XLV over the top. The Steelers and Packers represent two of the NFL's most storied franchises -- always good for ratings -- and the game will get a big tune-in factor from people in Dallas, which is the nation's fifth-biggest television market.
But here's why a record seems likely: NFL ratings over the past 24 months have been astronomical. The league averaged 17.9 million viewers for the 2010 regular season, an increase of 13 percent from last year and the highest average game viewership since 1990. The championship games two weeks ago drew their best ratings since 1997, including 54.9 million viewers watching the Steelers defeat the Jets. Even the seemingly impossible-to-watch Pro Bowl drew its highest rating in 14 years.
Publicly, of course, Fox Sports is playing it cool.
"One of the things I've learned over the years is you never, ever make predictions about ratings," said Fox Sports chairman David Hill. "We are thrilled with the matchup, naturally, and the ratings that we have had this season have been fantastic. We expect that to continue in the Super Bowl."
Fox last broadcast the Super Bowl three years ago when the Giants defeated the Patriots in a thrilling finish. That game drew 97.4 million viewers, setting a Super Bowl viewership record at the time. This year's coverage offers some of the same elements from 2008, including a celebrity red carpet and an interview with President Obama (with Fox News talk-show host Bill O'Reilly replacing Shepard Smith in the role).
Here, SI.com offers a mini-guide to what you can expect from the broadcast:
Fox officially begins its pregame at 2 p.m. ET, though the network will air an hour-long NFL highlight show at noon ("The Road to the Super Bowl") followed by "Inside the Rings with Troy Aikman", in which you can expect the Fox NFL game analyst to float some softballs toward Super Bowl greats Jerome Bettis, Drew Brees and Kurt Warner.
The pregame show will have the usual Fox NFL Sunday cast: Co-hosts Terry Bradshaw and Curt Menefee and analysts Howie Long, Michael Strahan and Jimmy Johnson. Pam Oliver and Chris Myers are working the game as sideline reporters. NFL Insider Jay Glazer, NFL rules analyst Mike Pereira and comedic prognosticator Frank Caliendo will also appear. (Johnson, for his part, predicted a high scoring game. "Having two weeks to prepare for a lot of the zone blitzes and a lot of the different blitz schemes," Johnson said, "I think these offensive teams could have an edge and I think points will be scored.")
Scott Ackerson, the Super Bowl pregame and postgame producer, says viewers should expect a little less of the traditional features involving Player X and Y. Instead, Fox will deploy a talk-show style format from a set on the north side of the stadium before 5 p.m. There will be segments featuring former Cowboys, Niners, Packers and Steelers telling stories about the Super Bowl. The Cowboys panel consists of Aikman, Johnson, Daryl Johnston (a Fox NFL analyst), Jerry Jones, and Michael Irvin. Eddie DeBartolo and Ronnie Lott will represent the Niners. Bettis, Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and Mean Joe Greene will discuss the Steelers. LeRoy Butler and Dave Robinson, a famed linebacker for Green Bay in the 1960s and 1970s, will share old Packers memories. Menefee will moderate the roundtable, with Bradshaw, Johnson, Long, and Strahan filling the chairs when needed.
What is likely to be the most-talked about feature of the pregame is Bradshaw's interview with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. That will come between 5:30 and 6 p.m. Bradshaw, by nature of his television role and figure in Steelers lore, has arguably been Roethlisberger's most public critic. The two spoke on Tuesday in a makeshift locker room below Cowboys Stadium.
"I explained to him my role in sports television. I'm going to give opinions," Bradshaw said. "I've never been shy about it. I think viewers know that if you ask me a question, I'm going to give you an answer and that's what I'm supposed to do. Like me or not like me, people know I say exactly what I feel when I am asked about a situation. And I explained that to Ben.
"I then said to him that, 'If I hurt you, I am sorry for that.' I apologized. It was not necessary but I wanted to do it. I also said that if this comes up again and if I am in a position of having to say something, I'm not going to stop. But one of the things I will do and I told him this: You and I are part of a proud franchise. You are going to break every record that I have and I want you to win as many Super Bowls as me and more. I admire your talent and I want to pull for you as a person. I got your back. That's what I told him.
"I'm tired of being in trouble with the Steelers. Hell, I'm always in trouble with the Steelers. I was in trouble as a player. I was in trouble with Chuck Noll. I'm always patching stuff up, so I'm patching this up, too. I told him I wanted a relationship with him. It doesn't mean we are going to hang out or golf, but it means I can walk out on a football field and talk to him. I did most of the talking. If he doesn't like me, I totally understand. I don't expect to be invited over to his house. That wasn't the point. The point was, "Let's stop and let's start fresh because the Steelers fans don't want this from us."
TMZ also joins the pregame (yes, that's not a misprint) to report on the party scene during Super Bowl week, though Ackerson promises far less debauchery than a weekend with Charlie Sheen. "It's not going to be looking for dirt and trying to find what athletes are doing at 1:30 (a.m.), it's kind of to give the glitz and glamour of the Super Bowl and a different way of showing the parties throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area," Ackerson said.
Fox will once again have a collection of current and former NFL stars (Anthony Munoz, Jim Plunkett, Bart Starr, Hines Ward and Charles Woodson are among the group) reading the Declaration of Independence. Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly's interview with President Barack Obama will air between 4:30-5 p.m.
As far as the upcoming labor situation, Ackerson said Fox would discuss during the pregame but not dwell on it.
Game time is scheduled for 6:29 p.m., with Joe Buck and Aikman calling their third Super Bowl together. Both talked this week about the art of juggling how much back story to give an audience filled with casual football fans.
"When you do a game like the Super Bowl, you have to scale it back and get back to some of the older stories that maybe you have already said before," Buck said. "You have to do it tactfully and you can't do it in a way that's insulting to the hardcore viewer ... Some of the basic things that even going in the NFC Championship Game you take for granted that people know. It's something I'm very aware of as I prepare for this game, to be a little more general as we get more people into the tent."
One of the perks of being on the broadcast team is getting insight from the coaches and players in production meetings before the game. Both the Packers and Steelers have been forthcoming with the broadcast group, according to game producer Richie Zyontz. Fox did not have any Steelers game this season, but has a long relationship with the Packers, given its NFC contract. "When we have had previous Super Bowls, the coaches have been consistent with us how they've been with us other times," Aikman said. "For instance, [Packers coach] Mike McCarthy has been very open with us. The Steelers have been great with us, too, but [head coach] Mike Tomlin is more close to the vest. At the end of the day, they are consistent with who they are."
Pereira, whom Buck called the best hire in Fox Sports history, will stand behind the game announcers in the booth and will be used if the situation warrants. But the former vice president of NFL officiating will impact the broadcast even if he's not on the air. Two weeks ago, Pereira whispered in Buck's ear to inform him of the rule that both Bears quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Todd Collins were ineligible to return to the game once third-string quarterback Caleb Haynie entered near at the third quarter. Said Pereira: "Even if I don't get on the air. I'll still be a help to those guys."
Don't expect talk of NFL labor unrest during the broadcast. It's unlikely to happen unless it's a blowout.
By this time, the nearly 300 employees of Fox Sports (up from 250 for its Super Bowl three years ago) will be exhausted. Bradshaw is scheduled to handle the trophy ceremony, which puts him in the interesting position of potentially handing the trophy to his former employer. He is transparent about his loyalties.
"I've already thought about what it would be like for me to stand in the middle of (Texas Stadium) and present the Lombardi Trophy to (Steelers president) Dan Rooney," Bradshaw said. "I have already thought about that and how cool it would be since I was part of the first team (to win a Super Bowl). I'm excited for Pittsburgh, but if Green Bay were to win it, I'd be just as excited for them. We just know that I'm a Steelers guy. I have no problem doing the show and answering questions about anything pertaining to the football game, whether it's negative thought or positive for Pittsburgh. But where is my heart? Well, you know where it is. It's with the Steelers."