Founder / Editor


Associate Editor


Assistant Editor











Did Super Bowl XLIV Really Outdraw "M*A*S*H"? Not Necessarily...
February 9, 2010  | By David Bianculli

mash-alda-swit.jpgBoth CBS and the Nielsen Company give credit to Sunday's CBS telecast of Super Bowl XLIV as the all-time most popular TV event, slightly beating the finale of the same network's M*A*S*H, a record that has stood for 27 years. But if you look at the statistics from a slightly different angle, that record STILL stands...


Certainly, Super Bowl XLIV was a huge deal, and drew a huge audience. It was helped by the presence of two hot quarterbacks, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. And by the dramatic story line of the team from New Orleans, rising from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina.

And, not incidentally, by a brutal snowstorm blanketing much of the country that kept many people indoors -- and by a close game, that wasn't decided until an interception by the Saints in the final minutes.

That all added up to an estimated average audience of 106.5 million viewers. That's not only the highest Super Bowl audience of all time, but, in terms of overall viewers, it slightly edges the long-standing champion, the 1983 "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" finale of the CBS sitcom M*A*S*H.


As they say, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Come at those same numbers from another direction, and M*A*S*H still retains the crown.


Take, for example, one statistic, for TV households. Nielsen estimates that 51.7 million households watched all or part of Sunday's Super Bowl, making it more popular than that M*A*S*H farewell, credited with 50.2 million households.

Yet the Nielsen ratings themselves, which measure the percentage of all homes with television sets, credit Super Bowl XLIV with a 45 rating - quite impressive, but nowhere near the M*A*S*H rating of 60. Back then, nearly 77 percent of all homes watching television that night were tuned to Hawkeye and company. Even the top metered markets for Super Bowl XLIV averaged only a 68 share.

But here's the real perspective-changer. The United States population has grown by almost one-third since M*A*S*H was televised. So in 1983, when M*A*S*H drew 106 million viewers, the overall population was 233.7 million -- making the show's reach an astounding 45 percent of the country.

By contrast, the Saints-Colts game, with its 106.5 million, was playing to a nation of 315.5 million -- meaning that it drew, by comparison, a "paltry" 33.7 percent of the country.

M*A*S*H the numbers that way, and M*A*S*H is winner, and still champion...




Curtis said:

I was in a house band that hosted a blues jam session every Monday in Ithaca, NY in 1983 (it's still going on today). We would regularly get seventy-five to a hundred people or so including musicians. The night that M*A*S*H bugged out there were six people in the place not counting the band and the staff.

I still haven't seen that last show. Was it good? LOL!

Comment posted on February 9, 2010 11:23 AM

Eileen said:

Thanks, David, for the clarification.

Those of us who remember the finale of M*A*S*H also remember all the hoopla surrounding that episode. All over the US parties took place to honor the passing of one of tv's greatest shows --ever!

Here in NYC, the students at Fordham University, Alan Alda's alma mater, held a party in his dorm room, #E6, and the campus truly partied that night.

Across the country, in the hometowns of Loretta Swit, Jamie Farr, et al, celebrations took place.

This was a major event, so I'm happy you crunched the numbers. There are certain records that shouldn't be broken, and this is one of them.

[What a terrific story about Fordham! And what a great idea: tracking down the dorm rooms of future celebrities, and using them as drunken shrines... -- David B.]

Comment posted on February 9, 2010 1:57 PM

Sarah said:

The first thing I thought when I saw the ratings was that the snow storm that came down in the east was a major factor in the numbers. Like my friend said, A Lot of people were trapped and couldn't get to their super bowl parties, making for more individual tvs on for some of or all of the game.

MASH is still #1 in my book (even though I was 3 when it aired). I have watched the final episode many times. This super bowl is only going to air once.

[Dear Sarah -- M*A*S*H remains number one in MY book, too. And my book, for the record, is titled "Dictionary of Teleliteracy: Television's 500 Biggest Hits, Misses, and Events." -- David B.]

Comment posted on February 9, 2010 2:23 PM

Greg Kibitz said:

Being a Science-Math nerd and proverbial skeptic, I could not help thinking the exact same thing the second I heard that very same stat on the news. But what can you expect from a country that calls all our sport's "National" franchise winners World Champions or Political Pundits that call 2-3% wins in elections landslides and mandates (esp. when on average 40% of the eligible electorate does not even vote). Anyway, I am 100% sickened by our national obsession with "the best" and worse yet that we more often than not falsify the fasts to achieve that goal in any way possible. But then again, this is the land of Madison Avenue means more than real facts or truth, so again, would you expect one iota less?

Comment posted on February 9, 2010 4:25 PM

Sally W. said:

The numbers may never meet our satisfaction (how do we accurately measure the number of viewers, how do we consider multiple viewers watching from one tv - especially at these big gatherings like Super Bowl parties or maybe even big gatherings for the series finale of M*A*S*H?). But, I think that it's nice to think that the Super Bowl is the one thing that brings a wide audience together even if the tv landscape becomes more fractionalized.

Plus, I thought that Alan Alda was very gracious in applauding New Orleans (the team and the city) and the Super Bowl while questioning the numbers (he is, after all, the former host of Scientific American Frontiers, and has the curious mind!), as the NY Times cited in this article by Richard Sandomir (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/09/sports/football/09sandomir.html):

"Alan Alda, the star of 'M*A*S*H' and the director of its two-and-a-half-hour finale, wrote in an e-mail message: 'I'm happy for New Orleans. I want to see that city come out first in every way that it can, even if it means giving up a record that 'M*A*S*H' held for a long time.' But, he said, 'don't give me the Magnanimity Medal yet.' He wonders about Nielsen Media's ability to account for the effect of large groups gathered around TV sets to watch major events."

Comment posted on February 10, 2010 12:18 AM

Colleen said:

Between the Northeastern snow and the continuing lag in the economy, I'm pretty sure most folks chose to stay in and watch the game, rather than schlep out to a bar or house party. Me? I watched the game at a friend's house. Actually, it was being DVR'd... so we had dinner and skipped through most of the game, watching only the commercials until halfway through the fourth quarter.

The difference between M*A*S*H and this year's Super Bowl? In twenty years, I won't remember who played - but I'll always be able to mutter "You tell 'em, ferret face!"

Comment posted on February 10, 2010 8:39 AM

Kevan said:

Mr. B, I've reread this a few times, trying to interpret it as something other than a curmudgeonly attempt to put an asterisk on last Sunday's ratings achievement in order to keep one of your favorite shows on top. But that's just how it comes off to me.

The key to your argument is using the term "most popular" TV event as opposed to "most watched". The word "popular" connotes a consensus, so the emphasis is on percentage rather than total eyeballs.

So, the "M*A*S*H" finale commanded a higher percentage of the audience and of the population (which was smaller in 1983). Okay. But there were essentially only two real alternatives to watch in most American homes in 1983. Cable wasn't nearly as widespread, nor did it offer a quarter of the number of channels it does now. Home video was in its infancy. Time-shifting was virtually nonexistant. The only civilian on the internet was Matthew Broderick in "WarGames".

By your criteria, no program or event could ever accomplish what the "M*A*S*H" finale accomplished. The population is too large and too fragmented and presented with too many options to ever expect a consensus like that ever again.

On the other hand, total eyeballs is total eyeballs, and Super Bowl XLIV had the most pointed toward it (and its commercials, which is really what all this numbers-crunching is about anyway, right?)

Take some solace in the knowledge that the "M*A*S*H" finale remains the most-watched scripted show in history and will most definitely remain there in perpetuity.

[Dear Kevan: I think we're in total agreement, actually. Super Bowl XLIV reached an unprecedented amount of people, while M*A*S*H is likely to remain the percentage-of-audience winner forever in this media-fragmented world. -- David B.]

Comment posted on February 12, 2010 1:41 PM

Patrick said:

Sarah said above: "This super bowl is only going to air once."
Doesn't the Classic Sports channel (now known as ESPN Classic) or the NFL Network (which we don't get in New York City) repeat old championship games? Not just Super Bowls, but division games too?
And, the half-time show with The Who was better than the game. I sent it trying to match the Who songs to the "CSI" shows which use Who songs as their themes.

Comment posted on February 16, 2010 2:10 PM
Leave a Comment: (No HTML, 1000 chars max)
 Name (required)
 Email (required) (will not be published)
Type in the verification word shown on the image.