In 1993, 42.4 million households tuned in to the series finale of Cheers. Last Friday, almost 42 million people tuned in ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel or MSNBC to watch the last hour of the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old who today was charged with using a weapon of mass destruction and malicious destruction of property resulting in death in the bombings a week ago of the Boston Marathon. There’s no question that a national news event, particularly one centered on a spectacular and seemingly inexplicable crime, would draw an enormous audience. But the juxtaposition of those figures from twenty years apart serves to illustrate a useful point: national tragedies, particularly crime stories, are perhaps the last form of television that has a truly mass audience.
The extent to which the American television audience has fragmented is extraordinary, and not entirely a bad thing, driven as it has been by dramatic increases in the numer of offerings available to viewers, and a dramatic increase in their quality. In the 1952–1953 second season of I Love Lucy, for example, the show averaged a 67.3 rating, meaning 67.3 percent of American television households were tuned into the show during its time slot. It’s hard to come up with a directly comparable number for Friday night’s news coverage because ratings are done by show rather than in the aggregate, but if 42 million households tuned in to watch the manhunt, that would represent 36.8 percent of America’s 114.2 million television households. Similarly, n Cheers’ fifth season, its highest-rated, the show, which aired from 1986–1987, pulled in an average rating of 27.2, which averaged out to 23.77 million viewers per episode. Friends pulled in an average of 24.50 million viewers per episode in its eighth season, which aired in 2001–2002. But the last year a show that won the Nielsen ratings had a rating of above 20 was 1997–1998, when Seinfeld pulled in a 21.7 rating. In 2011–2012, NBC Sunday Night Football pulled in the crown with a mere 12.9 rating.
I’m not sad that we have so much tremendous television on the airwaves these days, and that people have so many options for terrific viewing that are specific to their interests. But I am sorry that there’s nothing narrative that unites us as much as television viewers as a manhunt like this did. The reasons we tune into events like the chase after Tsarnaev are clear. The crimes he is accused of committing are real, rather than fictional, which raises the stakes on our desire for resolution and closure. The events are unscripted — unlike crime shows, where familiar detectives have a particular knack of ending standoffs, real life encounters between criminals and the police are far more volatile. And this is programming with great potential for further violence that could be aired live. Particularly given the recent death of fugitive former Los Angeles Police Department officer Christopher Dorner in a standoff with police at a remote cabin, and the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar’s brother, in a fight with police earlier in the day, the chase for Tsarnaev seemed like it could easily have ended in a bombing or a shootout, rather than with the surrender that eventually took place.
It’s fear and morbid curiosity — neither of which are unjustified emotions — that draw us to this kind of chase. In the past it was possible to create enormous audiences through compelling characters and long-established relationships. Now, that seems impossible, and the reactions that bring us together are darker. That doesn’t mean our responses aren’t genuine or valid. But it’s a shame that we’re sharing collective terror and anxiety on a greater scale than we’re sharing joy, transport, and simple humor.