31.1 Million Watched Michael Jackson Memorial

Rash Report: Viewership for King of Pop Tribute a Testament to the Power of Pop Culture

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Cultural critics may disagree on the meaning of Michael Jackson's memorial service, as varied reactions make the televised event the closest thing to a national, cultural Rorschach test.

Charles Gibson anchored 'Remembering Michael Jackson' on ABC.
Charles Gibson anchored 'Remembering Michael Jackson' on ABC. Credit: ABC
But media critics will agree on one commonality: As a TV event, it was big, rivaling a state funeral in impact, if not decorum.

Nielsen estimates that 31.1 million people watched the memorial, which ran from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on 18 networks. This was more than double the most recent equivalent event during daytime, President Gerald Ford's funeral, which was watched by 15 million. And the viewing was 50% higher than the 20.8 million who watched the daytime funeral of the president who presided when Jackson was at the top of his "Thriller" popularity, Ronald Reagan.

But it was less than the 35 million who watched Reagan's burial service, which played in prime time. And despite running from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, Princess Diana's funeral was watched by a remarkable 33.2 million.

And because it ran from 3:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. on a Friday morning, there was a relatively low 8.8 million tuning in for the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Of course, millions more saw the view from the Vatican on cable and broadcast news.

But that the King of Pop can even be compared to a princess, presidents and a pope shows the importance and impact of pop culture on everyday Americans.

And these small-screen figures don't even count the millions more watching computer screens, as reported by Ad Age's Brian Steinberg and Andrew Hampp.

Not surprisingly, the big broadcasters ran retrospectives in prime time for those who didn't catch the event live in daytime.

Rash chart July 7, 2009Click for PDF
See how all the shows did in the ratings.

ABC dedicated two hours to Jackson, with a special "20/20" look at the service, delivering a 1.8/5 rating and share in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic. "Primetime: Family Secrets," which examined the Jackson family, followed with a winning 2.6/7, slightly higher than the 2.3/7 for NBC's "Dateline," which also looked back at the memorial. And on CBS, "48 Hours Mystery" had a Jackson theme and notched a 1.5/4.

But perhaps the biggest tribute of all wasn't yet another look back at the King of Pop but a look for the next one. "America's Got Talent," in which amateurs aspire to the professional fame (if not some of the personal infamy) of performers such as Michael Jackson, was prime time's highest-rated show, scoring a 3.0/9, which helped NBC win the ratings race with an overall 2.2/7.

Wednesday: From entertainment to economics: Despite the down economy, "The Ascent of Money" on PBS, which explores the rise of the modern financial system, should give perspective.
Thursday: For couch potatoes, it'll be either inspiring or depressing to watch the world's fittest athletes live from France as stage six of the Tour de France plays out on Versus.

More Michael wannabes on Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance," which should give "America's Got Talent" a run for its money.

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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.

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