Cinderella (1957) Most-Watched TV Program of All Time?

When the final, national Nielsen ratings for Super Bowl XLIV (broadcast on Sunday, February 7th, 2010 by CBS) were released, they revealed that an average number of 106,476,000 viewers had watched the game, topping the 105,970,000 who had watched “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” the series finale of M*A*S*H, in February 1983.

However, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” retained its record as the highest-rated television broadcast of all time with a 60.2 Nielsen rating. (A full ratings analysis of “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” can be found here.) While football fans rejoiced and M*A*S*H fans grumbled, there was at least one person wondering if Super Bowl XLIV actually deserved the title of most-watched television program. Was it possible that a ninety-minute musical special aired on CBS in 1957 was the true record holder?

On Sunday, March 31st, 1957 from 8-9:30PM, CBS aired “Cinderella,” a color extravaganza starring Julie Andrews with music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Reportedly, some 107 million viewers tuned in, more than the 105.9 who watched “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” or the 106.5 million who watched Super Bowl XLIV.

Ratings guru DuMont, who comments here at Television Obscurities on occasion, decided to investigate. After doing an impressive amount of research, DuMont posted an in-depth look at the ratings and numbers for “Cinderella” at the AVS Forum, concluding that upward of 109,974,750 viewers watched “Cinderella” on CBS on March 31st, 1957.

I’ve done my own investigation. Keep reading to see what I came up with. To start, here’s how The Billboard announced the numbers for “Cinderella” in its April 29th, 1957 issue:

The March 31 CBS-TV spectacular of “Cinderella” hit the jackpot. It’s Nielsen rating was a socko 60.1 and its AA a 49.1. Its share of audience was 65.6. Pepsi-Cola and Shulton Sponsored. [1].

And on May 6th, The Billboard published the two charts, reflecting the Top Ten network television programs for the two weeks ending April 6th, 1957 according to Nielsen [2]. The first chart listed the Top Ten programs by total audience rating and the second chart by average audience rating.

For some reason, the charts list NBC as the network that broadcast “Cinderella” rather than CBS; I’m not sure why The Billboard first gave the total audience rating as 60.1 and later as 60.6 but the latter number seems to be the correct one. Here are the charts in full:

Total Audience:

## Program Network Rating
1. Cinderella NBC [CBS] 60.6
2. Academy Awards NBC 48.2
3. I Love Lucy CBS 44.3
4. $64,000 Question CBS 43.0
5. G.E. Theater CBS 42.7
6. Ed Sullivan Show CBS 42.5
7. Disneyland ABC 41.1
8. Perry Como Show NBC 40.3
9. Alfred Hitchcock Presents CBS 39.5
10. December Bride CBS 37.5

Average Audience:

## Program Network Rating
1. Cinderella NBC [CBS] 49.1
2. I Love Lucy CBS 41.8
3. G.E. Theater CBS 40.0
4. $64,000 Question CBS 39.4
5. Academy Awards NBC 37.3
6. Alfred Hitchcock Presents CBS 37.0
7. December Bride CBS 35.3
8. Gunsmoke CBS 34.2
9. Perry Como NBC 33.2
10. Ernie Ford NBC 33.0

Here’s what the various numbers mean. The total audience rating for “Cinderella,” a 60.6, means that 60.6% of all television households in the United States watched at least six minutes of the special. The average audience rating means that 49.1% of all television households watched all ninety minutes of the special. The total audience is large because some homes only watched part of the special (at least six minutes per quarter hour or half hour, I’m not sure which). Notice that the Academy Awards ranked second in total audience with a 48.2 rating but fifth in average audience with a 37.3 rating. Obviously, a lot of households tuned in to see a few Oscars handed out but a significantly smaller number watched the entire broadcast.

For the networks, the total audience figure served as a better promotional tool than the average audience because it made it look like more people were watching. For advertisers, on the other hand, it was the average number of households watching at any given minute that meant more. These days you rarely see mention of a program’s total audience and when you do it is only in terms of viewers. Super Bowl XLIV, for example, had a total audience of 153.4 million viewers compared to its average audience of 106.5 million viewers.

With this in mind the question becomes whether the 107 million viewers said to have watched “Cinderella” refers to the total audience or the average audience. Given that CBS would want to promote the larger number it stands to reason that the 107 million was calculated using the total audience rating. Because Nielsen at the time did not measure viewers, it was left to Trendex, another audience measurement service, to determin that there were 4.43 viewers per household. According to DuMont’s research, Nielsen estimated that the total households watching “Cinderella” was 23,305,000. Multiplying 23,305,000 by 4.43 equals 103,241,150 viewers. DuMont suggests that to the difference between the widely reported 107 million viewers and 103 million has to do with an increase in total households reflected by Trendex but not Nielsen.

Those 23,305,000 households average out to about 384,570 households per ratings point (60.6 x 384,570 = 23,304,942). Multiplying the 49.1 average audience rating by 384,570 comes to 18,882,387 Nielsen Average Audience (NAA). Multiplying that number by the 4.43 Trendex viewers per households equals 83,648,974 viewers, which is still a huge number but not a record. Interestingly, that’s roughly the same number that James Hibberd came up with in February of 2010 when he took a look at “Cinderella” for The Hollywood Reporter’s Live Feed:

Third, even if the 4.4 is accurate, at the time there were 49 million households in the country, but only 38.6 million households with TVs, according to Nielsen. If the 49.1 rating is right, then that meant that 18.95 million households watched “Cinderella.” Even at 4.4 viewers per house watching, this only comes out to 83.4 million people.

So the idea that 107 million people watched “Cinderella” is, yeah, probably just a fairy tale.

It’s not quite a fairy tale because some 107 million people did watch portions of “Cinderella,” just not all of it, if the Trendex number of 4.43 viewers per household is correct. Understanding television ratings can be both frustrating and confusing, especially when figures from different companies are involved as well as a variety of percentages relating to households with television. Still, based on the information available it is my opinion that the March 31st, 1957 broadcast of “Cinderella” on CBS is not the most-watched television program of all time. It may well have been at one point but the final episode of M*A*S*H certainly surpassed it in 1983 and it was likely beaten decades earlier (perhaps by Roots in 1977).

Works Cited:

1 “Late TV Flashes.” Billboard. 29 Apr. 1957: 2. (Read Online at Google Books)
2 “Nielsen Top Ten TV Web Shows.” Billboard. 6 May 1957: 10. (Read Online at Google Books)


8 Comments

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    …and of those 107 million viewers, less than 10% of them saw “Cinderella” in color, as color TV sets were still an expensive luxury in early 1957 [the prices ranged from $1000 to over $3000, depending on the manufacturer and model]. In fact, William Paley, “Mr. CBS”, was so convinced RCA (fronted by his broadcasting rival David Sarnoff, who also owned NBC) was selling more of their color sets through CBS’ occasional color telecasts, he privately declared that, after 1959, no further color programs would be carried on his network. Publicly, CBS announced that color telecasts were being suspended {unless there were a “special circumstance” involved}, but Paley’s dictum was followed through 1965, when most of his top executives finally convinced him to put aside his differences with Sarnoff and resume colorcasting in prime-time in order to combat NBC’s virtual all-color prime-time schedule that fall. Paley agreed to convert at least half of the network’s evening schedules to color…and finally presented the second edition of “CINDERELLA”, starring Lesley Ann Warren and videotaped in color, but originally shown in black and white in February 1965, in full color in early 1966.

    As a final irony, no COLOR videotapes or kinecopes of the original 1957 production of “Cinderella” are known to exist.

  • Emma says:

    Who cares?
    If it wasn’t for Cinderella, Julie Andrews probably wouldn’t have starred in Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music.
    Which means she wouldn’t have become one of the world’s most loved performers for kids and adults.

    • caitlyn says:

      I feel like that is a bit of a stretch. At the time, Julie Andrews was a relatively new actress, but was experiencing great success in “My Fair Lady” on Broadway. She was still doing 8 shows a week at the time Cinderella was conceived and being developed. In fact, she was so acclaimed that Julie Andrews was the primary reason that R&H changed the network from NBC to CBS as well as the fairy tail Cinderella, as “My Fair Lady” is an Edwardian Cinderella story. Rodgers is quoted as saying, “What sold us immediately was the chance to work with Julie.”
      While “Cinderella” certainly exposed her to a larger audience, she was already a big enough star for CBS to sign a contract with her specifically as they were attempting to rival the success of CBS’s airing of Peter Pan with Mary Martin.

      • Jon says:

        “Peter Pan” aired on NBC, not CBS. It aired twice live on NBC in 1955 & 1956 before being broadcast & videotaped for later broadcasts in 1960. NBC also aired a new version of “Peter Pan” in 1976 with a new musical score.

  • norman segel says:

    to Barry I. Grauman
    some of your statements are not accurate. first, by 1957 you could get an RCA model Aldrich for 495.00 (ctc4 special) the 1,000 dollar were sets with big wood furniture type. the average were $800. for the deluxe model (or a different type of modulation.) there were no 3,000 dollars set not even when the 15 inches color were introduced in 1954. RCA CT 100 cost 1,000.
    second, By the end of 1957 only 150,000 color sets had been sold or about 1.5 % of 105 millions of viewers, plus subtract the one who were broken, which were often.
    Mr. Paley left the color tv because he was a chip guy. he only purchased 3 RCA tk41 color cameras,(about 125,00 dollars) and by the late 50.s the tk41s were asking for parts and because his stupidity with Sarnoff, Paley did not moved forward. the record shows that you could find some color tape as early as 1958 in color format from NBC/RCA, nothing for cbs. in addition, Paley waited until the mid 60s because, two things, one must of the patens for color tv were already or about to expired and Paley decided to jump with an alternative to RCA such as Norelco cameras. and second lack of vision.
    Color was the way of the future which could have come earlier if Pale would have been a visionary. Sarnoff/RCA won the color war. We owed Sarnoff the arrogant man a big deal. when someone asked Sarnoff if color tv will be compatible his answer was, yes because he said so.

  • Joseph says:

    Billboard likely listed NBC as carrying he 1957 “Cinderella” because it wass in color, and NBC broadcast most of (the still small number of) color programs then. The magazine’s writer or editor may have thought “‘Cinderella’ Was In Color, So It Had To be On NBC!”.

  • Joseph says:

    However, it can be said with certainty that the 1957 CBS broadcast of “Cinderella” was the most-watched television program up to that time.

  • Bob says:

    The 1965 Cinderella used RCA TK-41 cameras. I imagine these were the same three cameras that Paley purchased in the 1950s. Would these have been the same cameras used on the Red Skekton Show in the 1950s.

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