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Final Body Count for "The War"
November 21, 2007  | By David Bianculli
 
Final audience numbers for the 15-hour PBS documentary series "The War" were released yesterday - and for quality TV lovers, they're reason for celebration. Sort of.

PBS is boasting that the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick production is "the most watched series in the last 10 years on PBS." That's arrived at by being very loose and generous with the figures, and stressing a measurement called the "national audience cume" - amassing the number of people who tuned in to sample the series for at least six minutes over its run of original and repeat broadcasts.

That means that if I watched all 15 hours of "The War," I counted as one person in the national audience cume. If you were flipping channels and watched one episode for six minutes, or two episodes for three minutes each, you counted just as much. By that very inclusive mathematical formula, PBS credits The War with 37.8 million people as part of the final national cume.

image from The WarEven playing by those rules, The War has to settle for "the most watched series in the last 10 years on PBS" because two previous Burns series have scored higher. Thirteen years ago, his Baseball series drew a cume of 43.1 million, and his reputation-making The Civil War, way back in 1990, had a cume of 38.9.

A much more honest number is the national household average audience rating. For The War, that's a 4.7, which works out to be an estimated 7 million people watching, on average, each minute. That's more than almost any cable series, but only about as much as last week's repeat episode of "House" on Fox.

For PBS, the numbers for The War, however they're parsed, are big. But when it comes to PBS, I'm old-fashioned, and almost hopelessly altruistic. When it comes to public broadcasting, I don't care if the numbers are good. I just care if the programs are good.

The War, by any qualitative yardstick, was great. PBS should be boasting about that - and looking more closely at its offerings than its numbers.

 
 
 
 
 
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