31 million U.S. viewers watch memorial service

Michael Jackson’s memorial service drew a huge television audience nationally, but that’s only part of the story.

Tuesday’s event, which commanded virtually unprecedented worldwide interest, was watched in U.S. homes by an average aud of 31.14 million viewers. This Nielsen estimate (which doesn’t include viewings in offices and other nonhome venues) reflects the 18 national broadcast and cable television networks showing the memorial, which aired from roughly 1-4 p.m. ET.

By comparison, Princess Diana’s funeral, shown early on a Saturday morning in America in 1997, averaged 33.3 million viewers in the U.S., and the burial of President Reagan on a Friday evening in 2004 averaged 35.1 million. President Obama’s inauguration — which, like the Jackson memorial, took place at a time when a majority of Americans were not at home — averaged 37.8 million viewers in January.

Nielsen did not break out averages for the broadcast networks, but CNN was top dog among cablers, averaging 5.3 million viewers — more than Fox News (2.23 million), MSNBC (1.39m) and HLN (377,000) combined.

It’s impossible, of course, to accurately gauge total viewership for such an event, as millions watched online or in other venues not tracked by Nielsen, such as airports and bars. Also, large-scale viewings were held throughout the country in places including Jackson’s Gary, Ind., hometown and outside Harlem’s Apollo Theater in New York.

And as something of the first worldwide cultural event in recent years, a significant amount of viewing was done on new platforms.

ABC News Digital, for example, delivered a total of nearly 6 million live video streams of the memorial on ABCNews.com and across its partner sites, including Yahoo!, Verizon, Charter, AT&T and RCN.

And according to Omniture, CNN reported its second-largest live video streaming day in CNN.com’s history, 10.5 million — behind only the 26.9 million streams on the day of the Obama inauguration — while E! Online attracted 6.9 million page views, its most for any day since the day following the Oscars in February.

Memorial organizer AEG made the feed of “Michael Jackson: The Farewell” available via satellites to TV organizations around the world. And viewers in some 200 countries and territories were able to see the memorial on the international BBC World News.

Estimates from AEG were not available Wednesday, although it had predicted 1 billion people would watch worldwide.

Among individual countries, more than 6 million viewed the primetime coverage in England, while 20 million in Germany watched portions of the ceremony on various channels.

Americans continued to multitask among media, according to Nielsen data released Wednesday, showing that Jackson’s death and related events have drawn the most online buzz on record.

News of his death on June 25 accounted for 8% of all conversations on the Web, while Tuesday’s public memorial service ranks as the third most-discussed topic online ever, at more than 3% of conversations. And preliminary numbers for Wednesday suggest it could have topped 3% as well.

The only other event to see this level of discussion online was the Obama inauguration, which accounted for roughly 5% of online discussion on Jan. 20.

Jackson remained a popular subject in primetime on Tuesday, with ABC, CBS and NBC each devoting at least one hour to coverage of the memorial service and other news.

ABC rated best with its 10 o’clock series “Primetime: Family Secrets” (2.6/7 in 18-49, 8.66m), which focused primarily on Debbie Rowe, the mother of Jackson’s children. This gave the net its top ratings result in the timeslot (excluding sports) in a little more than two years.

In a 10 o’clock hour flooded with Jackson coverage, ABC’s newsmag topped NBC’s “Dateline” (2.3/7, 6.30m) as well as CBS’ “48 Hours” (1.5/4, 5.37m).

Among entertainment series on Tuesday, NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” led the way despite being on the low side (3.0/9 in 18-49, 10.57m). It got little help from its lead-in, the premiere of alternative skein “Great American Road Trip” (1.3/5, 4.63m).

Sci Fi transitioned to Syfy on Tuesday, drawing a solid 3.51 million viewers for the two-hour preem of series “Warehouse.” And ABC Family’s “10 Things I Hate About You” drew a record aud for a comedy preem on the net (1.64 million) and was primetime’s No. 1 scripted program among femmes 12-34 (1.7/6).

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