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. .
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 . 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:
|3.||I Love Lucy||CBS||44.3|
|6.||Ed Sullivan Show||CBS||42.5|
|8.||Perry Como Show||NBC||40.3|
|9.||Alfred Hitchcock Presents||CBS||39.5|
|2.||I Love Lucy||CBS||41.8|
|6.||Alfred Hitchcock Presents||CBS||37.0|
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).