January 28, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Sunday’s Super Bowl may have been a lopsided victory for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but viewers were excited enough to stick with it through the bitter end. Early Nielsen estimates show an average audience throughout the game of 88.6 million viewers, up from 84.3 million last year. Overall, ABC estimates that 137.7 viewers watched at least a few minutes of the game, the best showing since the 1996 Pittsburgh-Dallas contest that drew 138.5 million.

The numbers stayed consistent even through the halftime show, featuring Shania Twain, No Doubt, and Sting, and frustrating NBC’s attempt to lure viewers away with its halftime counterprogramming of a special Sunday night edition of ”Saturday Night Live.”

Whether the Super Bowl helped ABC’s entertainment lineup is a judgment call. The lengthy post-game show, which included a performance by Bon Jovi, delayed the scheduled start of ”Alias” by an hour (it finally went on the air at 11 p.m. EST), resulting in a record low of 17.4 million viewers for a post-Super Bowl entertainment program. Still, that was the biggest audience yet for the Jennifer Garner spy series. ABC’s new long-awaited late-night show, ”Jimmy Kimmel Live,” premiered after ”Alias” and drew an estimated 4.8 million viewers. ABC Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun seemed pleased with ”Kimmel”’s numbers, telling the Hollywood Reporter, ”Those ratings were really quite something, although they’re going to drop off a lot over the course of the week,” once the show faces off against Jay Leno and David Letterman.

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