5. Roots “Part VIII” (January 30th 1977)
- 36.38 million households
- 51.1% of households with television
- 71% of households with television turned on
A television miniseries based on Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley. It chronicles the history of Haley’s ancestors, starting with his fourth great grandfather Kunta Kinte, from the Gambia, West Africa who was captured by slave traders and sent to Colonial America. We see the trials and tribulations of being a plantation slave, trying to survive and escape, preserve one’s native heritage, and protect one’s family. The narrative takes us through Kinte’s descendents, generation by generation, through the American Civil War, ending with Haley himself. The 2-hour “Part VIII” finale was set approximately during 1865- 1870, and featured Kinte’s grandson Chicken George, and his son Tom Harvey.
4. Murder Arraignment of O.J. Simpson (June 20th 1994)
- 39.21 million households
- 52.1% of households with television
- 71% of households with television turned on
The People v. Simpson had all the hallmarks of a Hollywood storyline; in June 1994, former football star and actor O.J. Simpson was charged with the double murder of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Described by many as the ´Trial of the Century´ it was certainly the most publicized criminal trial in American history. Simpson’s celebrity as prime suspect and the brutality of the crime brought instant attention. Then came the police pursuit of his white Ford Bronco after failing to turn himself in to LAPD where more than 1,000 reporters were waiting. Over 20 media helicopters broadcast the low speed chase, even interrupting coverage of Game 5 of the NBA Finals, bringing the dramatic scene to more than 95 million viewers. Controversially, the judge allowed live camera coverage from within the courtroom, and the media presence, and publicity it garnered, was extensive. The trial began on January 25th 1995, and its 134 days of testimony were completely televised by Court TV, and in part by other cable and network news outlets. Despite what was considered to be a solid prosecution case for L.A. County, Simpson was found not guilty after a 9 month trial- the longest in California history. The TV exposure made celebrities of many of the figures in the trial, including Judge Lance Ito, Prosecutor Marcia Clark, Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden, as well as Simpson’s multimillion dollar defense ‘Dream Team’ which included of Robert Shapiro, F. Lee Bailey and Johnnie Cochran.
3. Dallas “Who Done It?” (November 21st 1980)
- 41.47 million households
- 53.3% of households with television
- 76% of households with television turned on
Dallas is one of the most iconic soap operas, revolving around a rich Texan oil and cattle-ranching family, the Ewings. Wealth, romance and power were up for grabs in its 13 seasons. During the course of Season Two J.R. Ewing, the greedy, womanizing, scheming older brother and central character had angered nearly everyone in the State of Texas and made a huge number of enemies. Broadcast in March, the season finale saw J.R. in his office late at night and being shot twice by an unknown assailant. A Screen Actors’ Guild strike delayed production, and audiences had to wait 7 months until October to see “Who Done It?”, and if J.R. would even survive. CBS mounted a massive advertising campaign with the catchphrase “Who Shot J.R.?” Betting parlors around the world accepted wagers as to which of the 10 central characters had in fact shot J.R. and a session of the Turkish Parliament was even suspended early to allow legislators to get home in time to see the episode. After an estimated 83 million people turned into to quell their curiosity, TV networks caught on, and ending a season with a cliffhanger became a popular practice.
2. M*A*S*H “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (February 28th 1983)
- 50.15 million households
- 60.2% of households with television
- 77% of households with television turned on
After 11 years on the air, this 2 ½ hour series finale surpassed the record set by Dallas three years earlier. This 251st episode chronicles the 4077th MASH in the final days of the Korean War. It features the war’s effect on a number of unit personnel, in particular Capt. Hawkeye Pierce, continued hostilities, POW exchanges, the signing of a ceasefire, a subsequent celebration, the dismantling of the camp, and emotional goodbyes, including the iconic final scene of the ‘note’ that Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt leaves for Pierce as he takes off in a helicopter. After an unprecedented buildup, 30-second commercial blocks during the M*A*S*H finale cost more than that year’s Super Bowl. It is still the most watched TV series finale of all time, and held the honor of most watched TV broadcast in U.S. history for 27 years, until Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, though this is subject to some debate. The finale can continue to be seen, as M*A*S*H is widely syndicated on a number of channels.
1. Super Bowl XLIV, New Orleans Saints vs. Indianapolis Colts, (February 7th 2010)
- 106.5 million viewers
Held in Miami, Florida, the Saints beat the Colts 31- 17, and The Who played the Halftime Show. A small media flurry greeted the February 2010 report that Super Bowl XLIV, with106.5 million viewers, had surpassed the previous record holder, the M*A*S*H series finale, as the most-watched television program ever. At first glance the 50.15 million figure for that M*A*S*H finale episode doesn’t even come close. But wait- that’s 50.15 households. There isn’t really a head count for M*A*S*H, the way there is for the Super Bowl, though some reports put it at 121.6 million.
Nielsen now uses “People Meters” to electronically track actual bodies in rooms where televisions are turned on. Rolled out 23 years ago, this technology is not without its shortcomings. A staged photograph on the Nielsen site as of September 2010, promoting their ability to track any and all media, shows four people in a room with a television on, but only one of them is watching television. Another’s attention is focused on a laptop, another is holding a cell phone up to her head, while the fourth is concentrating on a handheld device.
According to the authoritative Nielsen, Super Bowl XLIV is the most watched TV broadcast in total viewership, while the M*A*S*H series finale still holds the record in terms of ratings and share (the % of households with television, and the % of households with the TV turned on).
Welcome to the wonderful, wacky world of TV ratings, where things may not always be what they seem.