A total U.S. television audience of 31 million people tuned in to watch Tuesday afternoon’s star-studded memorial service for singer Michael Jackson, according to Nielsen Media research.
Individual figures for broadcast news outlets were unavailable Wednesday, but CNN enjoyed the biggest afternoon cable-news audience, averaging 5.3 million viewers between 1 p.m and 4 p.m. ET. Fox News finished second in that span, averaging 2.2 million viewers, followed by MSNBC at 1.4 million
Overall, the 31 million figure — which was spread among 19 broadcast networks and cable news channels — represents only half of the 62 million who tuned into ABC in primetime back in 1993 to watch Oprah Winfrey’s exclusive interview with Jackson. Also that year, an audience of 91 million watched Jackson sing at halftime for Super Bowl XXVII.
As a recent comparison, Ronald Reagan’s funeral viewership reached 34 million in June, 2004. That was on a Friday.
However, with the memorial service unfolding during work hours Tuesday, millions viewed the proceedings online. CNN, for example, reported the delivery of 9.7 live video streams during the service, while Yahoo News reported another 5 million, 3.2 million more than it delivered for Barack Obama’s inauguration in January. (See separate story.)
Worldwide, Tuesday’s service undoubtedly drew hundreds of millions of viewers overall. In Germany, a reported 20 million viewers across all TV networks tuned in, with fledgling news channel ProSiebenSat.1’s N24 reporting its highest ratings ever.
And in the U.K., a total audience of 6 million was reported, with BBC2 garnering an audience of 4 million for prime-time coverage that extended from 6 p.m. to 8:85 p.m.
Given the worldwide proliferation of viewing platforms in recent years, it’s difficult to assess exactly where Tuesday’s service stands relative to other landmark globally televised events.
Even in 1982, without the Internet and with far fewer TV channels, total viewership for the Charles and Diana wedding is still only subject to hazy estimates — the BBC believes that event drew the biggest TV audience ever, estimating the count to be around 2.5 billion worldwide.
Regardless of where the Jackson memorial proceedings ultimately rank, the two weeks of Jackson post-mortem coverage leading up to them – and coming in the hours shortly thereafter — have represented a ratings boon for broadcasters and cable channels alike.
ABC, for example, drew a 10 o’clock-hour-leading 8.6 million viewers Tuesday night to news program “Primetime: Family Secrets — The Children of Michael Jackson,” which was anchored by Elizabeth Vargas.
And at 11:30, a “Nightline” entirely devoted to Jackson coverage averaged a whopping 4.9 million viewers, representing one of the few times in a given year that ABC’s latenight news program will top NBC’s “Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” and CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman.”
For its part, NBC didn’t fare badly either with a special “Farewell to Michael Jackson” edition of “Dateline” at 10 p.m. Tuesday, scoring 6.3 million viewers to finish in second place for the hour.
Indeed, since Jackson’s passing on June 25, special Jackson-focused editions of “Dateline” have been steady earners for NBC, starting with a Friday, June 26 installment that drew a 10 o’clock-leading 6.6 million viewers.
And outside of broadcast news divisions, entertainment-focused cable channels have also been rewarded for loading up on Jackson coverage in recent weeks.
Since June 25, for example, E!’s total day viewership average is up 19% year-to-year, with “E! News” averaging 650,000 viewers running at 7 p.m. and 11:30, a 42% bump over the same period in 2008.
Meanwhile, the BET Awards on June 28 – which were tweaked at the last minute to pay tribute to the deceased singer – saw their overnight total audience tally jump 61% year-to-year.