On Super Bowl Sunday, What Else Is on TV?

Talk about an odious task for a television programmer: What to air opposite the Super Bowl? Most channels choose to go with reruns, a low-cost method of filling four hours when virtually the entire nation is watching a football game elsewhere.

ABC will offer two hours each of old America’s Funniest Home Videos and Shark Tank; CBS will air reruns of The Good Wife, The Mentalist, and NCIS; AMC will have The Walking Dead. Sometimes a movie is in order. NBC has selected Little Fockers, the 2010 Ben Stiller-Robert DeNiro comedy. HBO is moving its Sunday night episodes of Girls and Looking ahead to Saturday and reairing those episodes during the Super Bowl.

“You treat it like it’s the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, referring to networks vying against the Super Bowl’s audience of 110-million-plus. “Grab what (viewers) you can, and you have low expectations. And you aren’t paying anything in production costs.”

Of course, there are also the networks that forge ahead with their regular schedules, the “Peyton Who?” strategy. PBS will air new episodes of Downton Abbey and Sherlock. Showtime reversed its initial decision to go with reruns and instead will air three new installments of Shameless, Episodes, and House of Lies. The network’s executives concluded that most of their subscribers who will watch the game have DVRs and prefer the continuity of keeping the regular schedule intact.

The Super Bowl remains a unique event in American television: The last four games are the four most-watched TV programs in U.S. history, according to Horizon Media, pushing the final M*A*S*H episode to No. 5. The Super Bowl is also the highest-rated telecast across all age groups, down to a ratings category that begins with 2-year-olds. As a result, a 30-second ad, at just over $4 million, costs roughly three times more than on the Academy Awards broadcast.

Still, it’s worth remembering that a year ago, nearly one-third of U.S. homes tuned in to watch something other than Baltimore-San Francisco on CBS. That’s one reason—along with the ubiquitous DVR—a network such as PBS or Showtime is comfortable enough to release new episodes during the game.

Animal Planet is celebrating its 10th year of counterprogramming, with two hours of its Puppy Bowl franchise. The puppy frolicking has given way, naturally, to kittens, with The Hallmark Channel airing a three-hour Kitten Bowl this Sunday, with as many as 70 cats navigating an obstacle course.

National Geographic’s Nat Geo Wild responded to the cats and dogs on Wednesday with its plans for Fish Bowl I, four hours of a goldfish swimming in its bowl. “We feel that we should own this space,” the network said in a satiric press conference video. ”If it’s a bowl that the people want, that’s exactly what we’re going to give them in the truest sense of the word. Because it’s a bowl. With a fish.”

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