Day 651: When The Whole World’s Watching

originally published October 12, 2013

A couple Sundays ago, over the course of 75 minutes that some of us are still trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to wash out of our brains, Breaking Bad aired its series-concluding episode. 10.3 million people tuned in, scoring a 5.2 share – a phenomenal success, considering the previous season’s finale (the unforgettable Face Off episode that wrapped up the Walter White vs. Gus Fring conflict) only drew in 1.9 million viewers.

For those who spend a much more logical amount of time thinking about television than yours truly, that 5.2 share means that 5.2% of running televisions during that time-chunk were tuned into AMC’s broadcast. In 2013, that’s pretty impressive, especially for a cable series. When The Sopranos clocked out with a cut-to-black curtain in 2007 the numbers were only slightly better, with 11.9 million fans watching. Somehow they can tweak the numbers to account for PVR recordings, but of course the ratings-counters can’t keep track of illegal downloads, a very real player in how a lot of people catch up on their favorite shows. But still… 10.3 million? I feel like that number should be higher.

The fact is, we live in a world filled with gazillions of channels – undoubtedly it was hard for some viewers to turn away from 12-year-old reruns of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire on the Game Show Network to catch some fresh drama. We’ll probably never hit the big numbers that have defined our most shared TV experiences again.

Any list of the most watched shows around the world is bound to be suspicious. FIFA would have us believe that their World Cup broadcasts – inarguably the most beloved sporting event across the globe – bring in billions of viewers. But even they have admitted that some of their figures are exaggerated while others are an outright guess.

The Nielsen Media Research company that has been keeping watch on our viewing habits since 1950 should be a touch more reliable. They tell us that the record-holder for a multi-day broadcast lies unquestionably with the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, which pulled about 4.7 billion pairs of eyes to TV sets over the course of its 17-day run. That means around 70% of the world’s population tuned in to at least one backstroke, pole vault, or simulated CGI fireworks display.

While it is impressive that as many as 638 million people tuned in to at least some portion of the final game of the 2010 World Cup, I’m more blown away by the fact that 530 million folks tuned in to Neil Armstrong’s first lunar steps on July 20, 1969. The broadcast wasn’t shown at all in the Eastern bloc countries (except Romania, known as the ‘cool kid’ on the Eastern bloc), and aired in the middle of the night across Europe – 2:56am in England, and 3:56am across most of western Europe. That’s 14% of the global population tuning in for a single species-changing moment of history.

And while we boast about our great television triumphs – those chart-topping finales that get tossed into the news cycle every time an important network series is coming to a close – aren’t going to match the biggest of global sporting events. Even the India-Pakistan semi-final (yes, that’s only a semi-final) in the 2011 Cricket World Cup brought in a billion viewers. The only American broadcast that has scratched that number was Elvis Presley’s 1973 Aloha From Hawaii broadcast. That one hit roughly a billion, including 51% of American sets and a staggering 91.8% of the audience in the Philippines. I had no idea Elvis was so big in Manila.

It will surprise no one that the most watched show in Canadian history, uniting roughly half of our population in front of a single broadcast, was a hockey game. Specifically the 2010 Gold Medal game at the Vancouver Olympics, in which Canada edged out the US 3-2 in overtime. Hell I’m genuinely un-Canadian in my utter disinterest in hockey, but I still watched this thing. It was like crunching the stress and suspense of all eight seasons of 24 into one game.

In Australia the top broadcast was actually a tennis match, the 2005 men’s singles final of the Australian Open. Not far behind this national record are two finale episodes of MasterChef Australia. They really dig their reality shows down under.

Three of New Zealand’s top 10 most-watched broadcasts were about Princess Diana: her funeral, the news coverage of her death, and a 1995 interview. Over in England they keep a list that excludes sporting events. This provides us with a better view of their greater shared TV experiences from back in the days when there were fewer channels to flip through – the top three are all from the 1980’s.

That said, even when sporting events are factored in for England, that unbelievable episode of EastEnders when Den divorces Angie on Christmas day, 1986, still lands at #4. In fact the only sports broadcast in England’s top five would be the 1966 World Cup final – the only time they’ve ever won the thing.

The most viewed American broadcasts (except for the Elvis thing and I suppose the moon landing – though that’s more an outer-space broadcast) have been Super Bowls, topping out with this year’s Baltimore Ravens – San Francisco 49ers game. The last episode of M*A*S*H, a 135-minute cinematic television game-changer, pulled in 125.59 million viewers and 71% of the country’s TV sets. The only other shows to lure more than half the nation’s sets to a single broadcast were the final episodes of The Fugitive, Cheers and Seinfeld.

I’ve covered this ground before, back when I spoiled the top 100 most-viewed finales in a single column on Day 250. But since we’re 401 days in the future, I feel I should check in on the three big shows that turned off their lights this year. 30 Rock’s finale pulled in 4.88 million viewers, only a fraction more than the 2009 finale of My Name Is Earl, a broadcast I don’t even remember hearing about. The US version of The Office didn’t do much better in May, bringing in 5.69 million fans for the big wedding finale. That’s less than a million more than the last episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was broadcast on friggin’ Nickelodeon.

As for Breaking Bad, quite possibly one of the best-written and most elaborately conceived shows in the history of the medium, 10.3 is pretty respectable, landing it at #82 on the list of most-watched finales. That’s about 100,000 more than watched the last episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Given the state of our culture, that sounds about right.

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