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Sports Media

They’re really doing a number

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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With impressive numbers in the win column and on the scoreboard, the Patriots have emerged as a Super Bowl favorite. Correspondingly if not surprisingly, their Nielsen ratings have also been impressive, overwhelmingly so, even in context of the NFL’s overall ever-growing viewership.

Consider the most recent evidence. Last Sunday’s 36-7 thumping of the Bears during that perfect-for-TV, snow-globe scene at Soldier Field drew the highest national ratings of any NFL program this season, with a 17.4 household rating. It also earned the fifth-highest regular-season local ratings in Patriots history, nabbing a 41.29 household rating in the Boston market as well as a 63 share.

It was the highest-rated program on television during the week, and just the second NFL game since 2007 to draw more than 30 million viewers nationally, checking in at 30.2 million.

Yet viewers are tuning in not only because the Patriots are the favorites, be it on the field or among New England fans. They’re tuning in for the star power of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, of course. And to hear NBC “Sunday Night Football’’ producer Fred Gaudelli explain it, they’re tuning in because the Patriots have reached one of the ultimate indicators of success: football fans either love ’em or loathe ’em, with little room in between.

“Success and stars are the two most marketable assets a franchise can have,’’ said Gaudelli, who will produce NBC’s Sunday night broadcast of the Packers’ visit to Gillette Stadium, the network’s second Patriots telecast this season. “Tradition would be third. Usually the first two assets combine to not only produce great admiration and curiosity, but jealousy and dislike. When a team can engender feelings on both sides of the spectrum, they’re a television draw.’’

And are the Patriots ever a draw. The list of their ratings feats and records this season is seemingly endless. Here are a few that stand out:

■ The Patriots’ 45-3 rout of the Jets on ESPN Dec. 6 was the 10th most-viewed program in cable television history among households.

■Patriots games account for the 10 highest-rated television programs in the Boston market since football season began.

■New England’s 23-20 overtime victory over Baltimore Oct. 17 achieved CBS’s highest household rating (12.8) in a single-game window since the network acquired the AFC package in 1998.

■And three Patriots games this season — the most recent Jets game (42.20 household rating), their Nov. 21 win over the Colts (42.04), and last Sunday’s aforementioned Bears game — rank Nos. 3-5 all-time in the Boston market.

“And Nos. 1 and 2 on that list are pretty much untouchable,’’ said Patriots spokesman Stacey James. “The first is the 16-and-0 game [the Patriots’ Dec. 29, 2007, victory over the Giants to complete an unbeaten regular season, which was broadcast on Channels 4, 5, and 7 locally, as well the NFL Network, earning a 50.1 household rating in Boston]. And the second is that 2003 home game against Miami when we got something like 30 inches of snow here and people were told to stay in the house. [That Dec. 7, 2003, game had a 43.80 household rating.] You couldn’t do anything that day but stay in and watch the game, and it ended up being a classic, with Tedy Bruschi throwing the snow, which became an iconic image. Those two are off the charts. They won’t be topped.

“That the third, fourth, and fifth happened this year is phenomenal. Robert Kraft says this a lot, that the NFL is appointment programming. It’s a great product because in part you can build your weekend around it, whether it’s 1 o’clock Sunday, 4 o’clock Sunday, Sunday night, even Monday. It’s part of the culture, the greatest reality programming ever invented, when you think about it.’’

While the Patriots make for compelling programming, this is not just their story, for the league itself is thriving more than ever on television. Fifteen NFL game telecasts this season have drawn at least 25 million viewers, up from six at this point last year and already surpassing the 2009 season total of nine. NFL games account for 20 of the 22 most-watched programs on television — including the top 15 — since the beginning of the season. And the most-watched program for each of the past 14 weeks has been — you guessed it — an NFL game.

“This is happening, in general, because we have marquee teams in great races,’’ said CBS executive vice president for programming Rob Correa, whose network has aired nine Patriots games this season, with three ranking among their four highest-rated games. “The Patriots are an incredible marquee team, obviously, with Brady, Belichick, the Super Bowls, they score a lot of points, all of that. But we have the Jets and their drama, Baltimore battling Pittsburgh, Indy is in a dogfight, even a bit of a resurgence in Kansas City and Oakland, great football markets. You put it all together, it’s good news for us. There really isn’t parity where the Patriots are concerned, and I realize people up there probably don’t see the Jets as a rival right now. But in a lot of other cities there’s parity, and having 32 teams that are 8-8 isn’t what you want anyway. What we have right now is kind of the perfect mix.’’

Gaudelli suggested the remarkable ratings run confirms the appeal of network television (live NFL broadcasts run on CBS, NBC, and Fox, as well as cable’s ESPN), and he believes only one thing can stop the momentum.

“It’s surprising only in the sense that, for years, all the population has been told is that network television is on life support,’’ he said. “This current ratings run with the NFL reconfirms that there is no platform that comes close to gathering and delivering tens of millions of people for an event like network television. Combine the platform with the most popular form of entertainment in America, the National Football League, and you have a ratings tour de force. As for sustainability, it would appear the only thing that can affect the NFL and its television dominance, in the short run, would be a work stoppage. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that.’’

It shouldn’t be difficult to find someone to second that sentiment, for the Nielsen data tells the truth: Millions upon millions of viewers and fans are quite satisfied with that appointment television on those Sundays and Monday nights.Welcome aboard Comcast SportsNet New England added a pair of on-air personalities to its roster this week, one of whom is a familiar face in the market. Bob Neumeier, who has had high-profile gigs on Channel 4, WEEI, and NBC, will join CSNNE full time beginning Jan. 3. The network also has hired Nicole Zaloumis, most recently of the Big Ten Network and Fox Sports Northwest, as an anchor. She will make her debut Jan. 10. The network also announced it has renewed the contracts of Michael Felger, Gary Tanguay, and Donny Marshall . . . NESN announced a digital content-sharing partnership yesterday with FoxSports.com . . . ESPN’s extensive coverage of college football’s bowl games — it will broadcast 29, including all five Bowl Championship Series games — begins tomorrow with a tripleheader, kicking off with the Brigham Young-Texas-El Paso matchup at 2 p.m. in the New Mexico Bowl.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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