The final episode of M*A*S*H, the movie-length “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” aired on February 28th, 1983 following months of intense press coverage. One thing the media focused on was whether or not ratings for the last episode of M*A*S*H would break records. By 1983, numerous high profile television events had reached new ratings heights: the episode of Dallas in which J.R. Ewing’s shooter was revealed; the blockbuster miniseries Roots; the annual Super Bowl.
As most television fans know, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” garnered a huge Nielsen rating (Nielsen Media Research has provided audience ratings since the early days of the television industry) and was seen by tens of millions of people. But just how many people watched the entire episode? Is “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” still the highest-rated television program of all time? The program with the most viewers? Read on.
Broadcast television lives and breathes by television ratings, which track how many people are watching certain programs at any given time. When television was in its infancy, there was no good way to determine the number of viewers, although rough estimates could be made by trying to get viewers to call or write, proving they had seen an advertiser’s commercials. During the 1950, the A.C. Nielsen Company emerged as one of the leaders in television market research. Today, the company that provides television ratings is called Nielsen Media Research. Other groups historically involved with television ratings included Arbitron and Trendex.
Simply put, the Nielsen ratings track how many television households (or homes) are watching a particular program. This is accomplished through the use of two numbers: the household rating and the household share. In 1983, Nielsen estimated that there were 83,300,000 television households in the United States, so one rating point (or one percent) equaled 833,000 homes. If a program had a rating of 10, some 8.3 million homes were watching that program. As of the 2013-2014 television season, there are 114.2 million television households in the United States.
The household share is the percentage of television sets in use at the time a certain program was on the air. Therefore, it is not a fixed number but a percentage of a constantly changing television universe. A program with a 15 share was watched by fifteen percent of television sets in use at the time.
There are multiple sets of ratings information provided by Nielsen. One set is called the overnight ratings (or overnight metered market ratings) These ratings come from the cities with the largest number of television households. Overnight ratings from six cities are available for “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (ranked by household rating) :
Nielsen Overnight Ratings
|New York City||56.4/72|
And here are the Arbitron ratings from those same cities :
Arbitron Overnight Ratings
|New York City||49.3/66|
So, according to Nielsen, in San Francisco, 63.7 percent of the total television universe in the city and 82 percent of the sets in use at the time were watching “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.” Arbitron put the numbers at 58.3/76. By comparison, the penultimate episode of M*A*S*H (“As Time Goes By,” originally aired on February 21st, 1983) drew an overnight Nielsen share of 38% in Chicago, 26% in New York City, and 23% in Los Angeles . Thus, the final episode saw a huge increase in the percentage of television sets in use watching M*A*S*H.
However, the overnight ratings only capture part of the picture. The national ratings encompass the entire television universe in the United States, not just those households in specific cities.
Nationally, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” received a 60.2 rating and a 77 share . That 60.2 ratings translates into an estimated 50,146,600 homes (833,000 X 60.2) which can be rounded up to either 50.15 million homes or 50.2 million homes. Either way, more than half of all the television households in the United States were watching M*A*S*H — and 77 percent of all televisions in use from 8:30PM to 11:00PM were tuned in to CBS.
The number of viewers who watched “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” depends on which measurement you look at. The total audience — the number of people who watched all or part of the two-and-a-half hours — clocks in at 121,624,000 million viewers . However, the total audience counts viewers who watched as little as six minutes of the finale. The average audience — the number of viewers who were actually watching during the average minute of the finale — stands at a somewhat lower 105,970,000 . In other words, while close to 106 million viewers watched the whole two-and-a-half hours of the finale, an additional 15 million watched at least six minutes.
For some reason, the number usually given for how many people watched the finale is 125 million. Apparently, this figure was released by either CBS or Nielsen (or both) in the days after the finale aired. Both The Associated Press and United Press International published the number on March 2nd [7, 8]. This erroneous figure has been repeated time and time again over the decades but the correct number is 121.6 million TOTAL audience or 105.9 million AVERAGE viewers.
When the finale originally aired in 1983, it broke all sorts of records. Prior to “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” the highest-rated television program had been the November 21st, 1980 episode of Dallas (commonly known as the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode, the actual title is “Who Done It?”), which averaged a 53.3 rating and a 76 share . M*A*S*H averaged a 60.2 rating and a 77 share. It also set the record for the most television households to watch a single program (50.15 million homes), the largest average number of viewers (105.9 million viewers) and the largest total audience (121.6 million viewers). The one record that M*A*S*H failed to break was the largest share of the audience to watch a single program; the 42nd Academy Awards, broadcast on April 7th, 1970, drew a 78 share, beating “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” by a single share point .
In the decades since M*A*S*H came to an end, most of the records it set on February 28th, 1983 have been broken. Because the number of potential viewers and television households grows every year due to population increases in the United States, it was only a matter of time before something was able to top “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen in terms of viewers. It only took three years for the 1986 Super Bowl to break the total audience number set by the final episode of M*A*S*H with 127.1 million viewers, roughly 5.5 million more than “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” . It would be 27 years before Super Bowl XLIV (broadcast on February 7th, 2010) was able to average more viewers and households than M*A*S*H, with 106,476,000 viewers and 51,728,000 households, beating M*A*S*H‘s 105.9 million viewers and 50.2 million househoulds .
The next two Super Bowls both broke those records with Super Bowl XLVI (broadcast February 5th, 2012) drawing 111,346,000 viewers and 53,910,000 households . Super Bowl XLVII (broadcast February 3rd, 2013) failed to break the record, with 108,693,000 viewers and 52,998,000 households . But it still topped M*A*S*H. Super Bowl XLVIII (broadcast February 2nd, 2014) shattered both records, with 112,191,000 viewers and 54,134,000 households .
Super Bowl XLIX (broadcast February 2nd, 2015) also set news records, with 114,442,000 viewers and 55,341,000 households. Its household rating of 47.5 was the highest since 1986 yet was still far below the 60.2 drawn by “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” in 1982 .
Most-Watched Television Broadcasts in U.S. History
|1.||Super Bowl XLIX||2015||114,442,000|
|2.||Super Bowl XLVIII||2014||112,191,000|
|3.||Super Bowl XLVI||2012||111,346,000|
|4.||Super Bowl XLV||2011||111,010,000|
|5.||Super Bowl XLVII||2013||108,693,000|
|6.||Super Bowl XLIV||2010||106,476,000|
|7.||“Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”||1983||105,970,000|
In short, as of February 2015 “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” is the seventh most-watched single television program of all time in the United States behind six Super Bowl games. It remains the single highest-rated television program of all time by a wide margin and that is a record unlikely to ever be broken.
3 Carmody, John. Washington Post. 23 Feb. 1983: B10.
4 “Finale of M*A*S*H Draws Record Number of Viewers.” New York Times. 3 Mar. 1983: C17.
5 The figure of 121,624,000 total viewers was published in a February 1st, 1994 Associated Press article written by John Nelson about ratings for Super Bowl XXVIII (PM Cycle).
6 The figure of 105,970,000 average viewer is from a February 6th, 2007 article in The Chicago Tribune about ratings for Super Bowl XLI (Ed Sherman, “’06 Bears beat ’85 Bears ; Loss to Colts ranks as 3rd-highest TV show of all time,” Page 5).
7 Jory, Tom. “‘M-A-S-H’ May Have Secured Victory in ’82-83 Race for CBS.” Associated Press. 2 Mar. 1983: AM Cycle.
8 [No Title]. United Press International. 2 Mar. 1983: AM Cycle.
9 “Finale of M*A*S*H Draws Record Number of Viewers.” New York Times.
10 According to this list of the 100 highest-rated television programs published by TVbytheNumbers.com on March 21st, 2009, the 42nd Academy Awards averaged a 43.4 Nielsen rating and a 78 share, placing it 38th on the list. Super Bowl X, broadcast on January 18th, 1976, also averaged a 78 share, but its 42.3 Nielsen rating tied it for 50th (Bill Gorman, “Top 100 Rated TV Shows Of All Time”).
11 “Scouting; Only 122.6 Million Viewers.” New York Times 28 Jan. 1987; A24.
12 “‘Undercover Boss’ scores a touchdown.” Media Life Magazine. 10 Feb. 2010. (13 Fitzgerald, Toni. “For NBC, one big night and new hopes.” Media Life Magazine. 8 Feb. 2012. (Read Online).
14 Fitzgerald, Toni. “There’s a new leader in 18-49s: CBS.” Media Life Magazine. 5 Feb. 2013. (Read Online).
15 Fitzgerald, Toni. “There’s a new No. 1 on broadcast.” Media Life Magazine. 4 Feb. 2014. (Read Online).
16 Fitzgerald, Toni. “Mixed results for postgame ‘Blacklist’.” Media Life Magazine. 3 Feb. 2015. (Read Online).
Last updated February 3rd, 2015