For three decades, the final episode of “M*A*S*H” has stood as the unreachable height of television broadcasting, combining the end of a cultural phenomenon with the end of a three-network era to garner 106 million viewers. Now, the seemingly impossible has occurred, as Sunday’s Super Bowl has beaten the drama to become the most-watched program in television history.
On Monday (February 8), the Nielsen Company released ratings numbers from the weekend’s big game between the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts. The result? The Super Bowl garnered 106.5 million pairs of eyeballs, just enough to beat the final “M*A*S*H” episode’s 105.97 million viewers.
As theories about the massive ratings emerged, credit went to a compelling story line that had New Orleans hoping for triumph following Hurricane Katrina, Peyton Manning’s desire for a second Super Bowl ring and a game that was close for much of its run despite a 31-17 Saints final score. The previous record viewership for a Super Bowl was last year’s game between Arizona and Pittsburgh, which netted 98.7 million viewers.
On the flip side, some are pointing out that there were far fewer TV sets in 1983 when “M*A*S*H” went off the air. Finishing its immensely popular 11-season run, the series about a team of doctors and support staff stationed at the 4,077th Hospital in South Korea signed off February 28, 1983, with “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” which ended with Hawkeye Pierce famously riding off in a helicopter and reading the word “goodbye” spelled out in stones on the ground.
Incidentally, the record for highest percentage of television sets to watch a TV series is still held by “The Fugitive,” whose final episode had an astounding 72 percent of all American homes tuned in in 1967. With the average home now containing multiple TVs, and the splintering of entertainment into so many options, that record seems unlikely to ever be broken.