After all the hoopla surrounding Thursday's finale of NBC's "Friends," its audience of 52.5 million viewers may have seemed something of a letdown. But the sitcom farewell was still the most-watched entertainment program in six years, drawing a much bigger audience than this year's Oscar telecast.
The 66-minute goodbye episode of "Friends" -- the series that anchored NBC's all-important Thursday schedule for virtually its entire 10-year run -- was the fourth most-watched series send-off ever, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.
It trails "M*A*S*H" (105.4 million viewers), "Cheers" (80.4 million) and "Seinfeld" (76.3 million). But those shows ended their runs at a time when there were far fewer cable networks competing with broadcasters than there are today.
Indeed, competition may have played a role in Thursday's less-than-overwhelming statistics for "Friends." CBS decided to blunt NBC's impact by scheduling a first-run "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (20.4 million viewers). The farewell was not even the most-watched "Friends" ever -- that distinction belongs to an episode that aired after the 1996 Super Bowl (52.9 million).
Even so, the finale numbers were in line with what NBC and many analysts forecast. "It's pretty much what we had estimated -- dead-on, in fact," said Stacy Lynn Koerner of the New York-based ad firm Initiative.
Because of competition from cable and other media, few TV programs besides the Super Bowl are able to attract enormous audiences these days. This year's Super Bowl on CBS, for example, averaged 89.6 million viewers, the highest number in six years. Advertisers for the "Friends" finale paid a reported $2 million per 30-second spot, or nearly as much as for an ad on the Super Bowl, Koerner said.
But the "Friends" sign-off still attracted the biggest crowd for an entertainment series since the "Seinfeld" finale in May 1998. And it easily topped the 43.5 million viewers for the 76th Academy Awards on Feb. 29.
The final "Friends" also dominated the young-adults category most prized by advertisers. The special episode lured 54% of the viewers aged 18 to 49 who were watching television during the 9 p.m. hour.
NBC kicked off the "Friends" frenzy with an 8 p.m. clip show that drew 36.9 million viewers. And, at 11:35 p.m., "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" featured a reunion with the six cast members of the sitcom and hit its highest ratings in top markets since the "Seinfeld" finale.