Finales and Live TV

I have a standing appointment with AMC. For the next six Sundays, I’ll find someone who subscribes to AMC, show up at their door at 8:45pm sharp, and we’ll watch Mad Men. We’ll be watching along with 2 million other people, if Mad Men’s viewership statistics stay predictable. And come finale night, maybe a few million more will join us. Here at Golden Age of Television, we write about Mad Men a lot, but today’s entry isn’t about Mad Men so much as it is about watching shows live. A while back, Kerri wrote about communal TV watching and how watching TV has never really been a solitary activity for her. I think about communal TV watching a lot when it comes time for a series finale.

Two million viewers sounds like a lot, but to put Mad Men’s two million into context, the Big Bang Theory averaged almost 20 million viewers per episode in it’s most recent season. Even if you like a show, there are so many ways to not watch live – PVR, stream, (il)legally download – that it seems unnecessary to designate a specific time to watch a specific show. Archaic, even. However, finales often have a much higher viewership than the rest of the run. Look at AMC’s Breaking Bad. It averaged 1.3 viewers per episode during it’s regular run, but it’s finale attracted 10.3 million viewers. There was so much buzz about Breaking Bad leading up to it’s finale, that the spike in viewership is no surprise. I assume that many people, like myself, watched the show via other means before tuning in live for the finale. But why tune in for the finale if I couldn’t be bothered to tune during the regular run? There are lots of reasons why we, the viewing audience, are attracted to finales, and it helps to look at why we watch live TV.

Certain things are only good live; I wouldn’t watch the Oscars on any other night. I want to eat nachos with friends while mocking gorgeous celebrities. I want to laugh when Clooney laughs, be bored when Jennifer Lawrence is bored, and feel feigned shock when Meryl Streep wins and feigns shock. The Oscars broadcast is beside the point.  Oscar night is a reason for movie-watchers to get together, whether it be in a friend’s basement or across the world.

Ditto for sporting events. I don’t typically watch sports, but I did watch the gold medal game of the 2010 Olympics. Canada vs. the United States. It was the most watched television broadcast in Canadian history. How many viewers watched the whole game? 16.6 million. Over half of Canada’s population, which is 34 million. How many viewers watched at least part? 26.5 million! Over 80%. Oh, Canada. I went to Smitty’s, ordered some wings and cheered on our boys, because it was the patriotic thing to do. Everyone else was watching! And I have to say, watching the game, knowing that it mattered to so many other people, made it matter to me.

When the Olympics are on, many of us share the compulsion to watch. It’s special, it’s only on every four years, and everyone else is doing it. And it’s fun to talk about the next day. Did you see that jump!!! Did you see that crash??? It’s something that connects us for a brief window of time because the Olympics are only relevant when it’s on air. Do you ever think about the Olympics when they aren’t on? How about the FIFA World Cup? But Katie, of course we watch sports live. If we didn’t, then the winner wouldn’t be a surprise! And that’s one of the reasons why we tune in for finales of scripted shows. We want to be there when the surprises happen. We don’t want anyone to ruin it, by telling us the final score.

Surprises and “needing to know how it ends” aren’t the only reason why we tune in. Like the Oscars, like the world series, finales are a meeting place for fans. It’s one last wave from the port, as the ship sails off into the night. Finales connect us, through a shared experience. We get to laugh at the same time as millions of other people. Millions of dads in millions of living rooms will make kissy noises when the sex scene comes on. And think of this! We get to see Don Draper’s last scene at the exact same time as Jon Hamm, the actor who plays Don Draper, sees it!

Bringing it back to Mad Men, the last episode of season 7, part 1, featured the broadcast of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. In the episode, each character watches the moon landing however they can, whether it be in a hotel room with co-workers, or at a viewing party in the family home. At the end of the episode during her pitch to Burger Chef, Peggy talks about how the nation was connected for one night through their television sets. (Side note, an estimated 530 million people watched the live broadcast of the moon landing, on July 20, 1969.)

Mad Men often features its characters in front of screens. How many national tragedies have we witnessed the characters witness? And in their personal lives, both Don and Peggy go to the movies all the time. What you get at the movies is a small group of people watching the exact same thing, and feeling the same emotions at the same time. Live TV events like the moon landing, like the World Cup final, and for me anyway, the last episode of Mad Men, are like going to an enormous movie theatre. It’s nice to feel like a part of something big and special, even if it is just one hour.


Just for a chuckle, here are the top five series finales (of primetime shows in the US) in terms of viewership:

5. Friends = 52.5 million viewers (2004)
4. Seinfeld = 76.3 million viewers (1998)
3. The Fugitive = 78 million viewers (1967)
2. Cheers = 80.4 million viewers (1993)
1. M*A*S*H = 105.9 million viewers (1983)

These are numbers that not even the Big Bang Theory could dream of.

Most of my statistics were found on Wikipedia, especially here.

One thought on “Finales and Live TV

  1. Pingback: Clip Show | The Golden Age of Television

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