Feb 8, 2011

the greatest television audience that wasn't

Was Super Bowl XLV the most-watched television event in U.S. history?

The Nielsen Co. said Monday that an estimated 111 million people watched the Green Bay Packers outlast the Pittsburgh Steelers in professional football's ultimate game. That tops the 106.5 million who watched the 2010 game between New Orleans and Indianapolis.

The series finale of "M*A*S*H" had held the title of the most-watched TV show in the United States for 27 years. It is now No. 3.
On the other hand, not really.

You see, there's this little thing called "population growth." M*A*S*H's finale had a remarkable 105.9 million viewers in 1983--back when the U.S. held about 233 million residents--meaning that over 45% of the U.S. watched that episode. In contrast, only 36% saw yesterday's surrealist hootenanny.

Now, to be fair, it's possible that the Nielsen ratings system in 1983 lacked today's sophistication and nuance, so the estimate is overgenerous. Furthermore, in today's fragmented media landscape--where we have 500 channels instead of 5, plus an Internet that didn't even exist in 1983--simultaneously capturing a hundred million Americans' attention for longer than 15 seconds is an achievement worth celebrating.

Just not with a Fergie / Slash duet.

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