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How 39 Million Can Equal 1: Grammy’s Unifying Night

We’re now a week removed from the news of Whitney Houston’s death and the subsequent Grammy Awards broadcast that galvanized the experience.

This clearly wasn’t something that would be on anyone’s media plan.  This quirky, macabre timing created an unexpected television event, where raw emotions would be on full display in what became a celebrity reality show. 

The proximity of the broadcast to Houston’s death allowed the viewing audience an opportunity to share in a communal social moment with the artists, as they simultaneously processed the immediacy of the shocking news.  The impact this had was evident on a market by market basis, as 20 of the 25 LPM markets delivered higher household ratings than the national broadcast – which was the most-watched Grammy broadcast since 1984 (the year of “Thriller”).

Ratings for the Grammys had been showing a slight upward trend for the past few years – but this was straight out of the blue.

So if this ultimately isn’t something that you can plan for, what is the big takeaway here?

Mostly it’s to serve as a visceral reminder of the social connection of television.  When the stories are big, that’s the first place you go.  Think about your first knee-jerk reaction to breaking news.  Do you burst into the room saying “Quick!  Go online!”  Probably not.  Chances are, it’s “Quick, turn on the TV!”

Fragmentation is not an equal opportunity divider.  Media consumption is not done in a vacuum, as a zero-sum game.  But there is a bit of a pecking order to media, depending upon circumstances.    And TV – specifically, the networks that make up free, over-the-air TV- always have the largest individual slices of the media multitasking pie.

The night that the news of Houston’s passing broke, the cable news channels each showed a bump in their audience deliveries.  CNN’s national prime audience on that Saturday night was about 2.5 million total viewers.  By the next night, it was re-centered at around 400,000 viewers.

Contrast that to CBS’ Grammy delivery on Sunday night.  There were over 3.7 million total viewers – in the New York DMA alone.  There were over 39 million viewers nationally.

Taken alone, the impact of that many viewers tuning into the breaking news story would be a notable story about what sort of power television has to quickly attract a large audience.  But when contrasted with the significantly larger numbers that were delivered by the Grammy Awards, well after the news was out – that shows the monumental reach potential of “Event Television” that the broadcast networks can deliver.

Because ultimately, broadcast television is where we come together to share our big moments.  And it’s these “big moments” that unite our 210 distinct local markets into one giant television family.

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