The show may have been hyped like the Second Coming, but ratings for ABC's three-part "The Beatles Anthology" suggest a large part of America greeted the Fab Four's return with a shrug.
Not that ABC should have expected much better, media-watchers suggest. After all, millions of people watched six hours of biographical material about a band that hasn't put out a record in 25 years, about four mop-tops with museum-piece hairdos, about music much of today's youth see as far removed from modern rock as Gilbert and Sullivan is from Little Richard.
"I have talked to any number of people, in particular young people, who didn't connect to it," says Neil Alperstein, who teaches media and popular culture at Loyola College. "A second Beatles generation? I don't think that it holds the same meaning for them. Anybody who anticipated [that vast numbers of young viewers would tune in] I think was barking up the wrong tree."
Adds Shirley Peroutka, a communications studies teacher at Goucher College, "I haven't heard zip from my students about it. I think for them it was a nonevent."
Sure, the show did OK, but it was far from the TV event of anyone's lifetime. Part 1 (which aired Nov. 19), with an estimated 17 million households watching, came in sixth for the week; it lagged behind NBC's entire Thursday night lineup, according to the Nielsen ratings.
Part 2, for which viewers had to wait three days, placed 13th the next week, with 12.9 million households.
"The broadcast schedule was extremely eccentric," said rock critic Dave Marsh, a fan of the series, whose cover story in TV Guide included interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. "You have to wait two nights for Part 2, and you put [Part 3] up against one of the biggest family social evenings in the year. I'd have scheduled it different."
Way behind 'Home'
Part 3, airing Thanksgiving, settled in at 36th place -- 26 places and 3.5 million households behind a repeat of "Home Alone," which aired against it on NBC. Part 3 also placed third in the week's Battle of the Brits, behind both Part 2 and ABC's broadcast of Princess Diana's BBC interview, which ranked 16th.
(Since the Nielsens measure households, it's hard to say how many people actually watched. ABC estimates 20 million viewers watched the anthology's entire six hours.)
Those numbers hardly put "The Beatles Anthology" in a league by itself. More people saw the Beatles back in 1964, when they debuted on Ed Sullivan. More people also saw the last episodes of "M*A*S*H." and "Cheers," "Roots," just about every Super Bowl and most episodes of "Friends."
Remember: This wasn't only the closest thing we'll ever see to a Beatles reunion; it was a TV program almost universally hailed by critics, one promoted with about a trillion 30-second commercials, one featured in magazine cover story after magazine cover story. It even persuaded ABC to change its name to "ABeatlesC."
It was, we were reminded incessantly, Beatlemania all over again.
So what happened? Why was the TV event of the millennium passed over by millions in favor of the weekly medical emergencies of "ER?" Should ABC now call itself ABeat-to-deathC?
Predictably, the folks at ABC are putting the best spin possible on things, insisting they did just fine, that the anthology performed pretty much as expected.
"The real story behind the 'Beatles Anthology' ratings is in the demographics, to see who exactly was watching," says ABC spokeswoman Janice Gretemeyer. "We found it was the adults 18-49, who obviously experienced Beatlemania firsthand many years ago and were reliving it.
"That audience," she adds, "also happens to be the one advertisers are most interested in."
The show certainly didn't hurt ABC. Anyone who watched can attest to the huge number of commercials that were paraded through it. The network didn't guarantee advertisers any minimum ratings, so they won't have to give any money back.
Realistically, no one should have expected the show to do better than it did. How many ratings blockbusters have been documentaries? If, 30 years ago, ABC had shown a documentary that brought Greta Garbo before the public for the first time in nearly two decades, would anyone under 20 have watched?
Probably not, regardless of how good the show was. So it should come as no surprise that millions of young people had better things to do than tune in to the Beatles.
Plus, the Beatles have always appealed to a rather specific -- if fairly large -- segment of the population: middle-class, middle-aged white Americans. Not coincidentally, that's the same demographic group into which most of the country's media critics fall. They, as a whole, thought the anthology was just swell.
"I think by those standards, it did what it was supposed to do," Dr. Alperstein says. "It celebrated what middle-aged white guys know about."
In a medium that has spent years separating its audience into neat demographic slices, "The Beatles Anthology" fit in perfectly. It didn't appeal to everyone, but it proved immensely appealing to a certain audience segment.
"Maybe there won't be any huge shows anymore," Dr. Peroutka says. "The more the network audience gets fragmented, the less possibility that any [one show] can attract a big audience. All of our differences the networks created that in a way, and now they have to live with the results."
Certainly, the show's makers, if not its marketers, knew their audience. The anthology assumed fairly extensive knowledge on the part of those watching and wasn't geared to appeal to anyone not already familiar with the group. Little effort was made to put the Beatles in context, and there was precious little in the way of annotation or background. Newcomers probably felt lost within Part 1's first half-hour.
If you liked the Beatles going in, you probably liked them going out. If you didn't, or were simply born too late to know very much, well, that was too bad. Which explains why few people seemed willing to forgo their weekly dose of "ER" in favor of the anthology.
As for The Beatles themselves, they are far from hurting -- at least financially. Volume 1 of "The Beatles Anthology" CD collection sold 450,000 copies its first day, the most single-day sales ever for an album, a Capitol Records spokesman said. More than 1 million copies were sold the first week, a record for a double album. This despite critical indifference to the new single, "Free as a Bird," which was first heard at the end of ABC's broadcast of Part 1.
"I think 'Free as a Bird' might have hurt them," Mr. Marsh said. "I don't think it's good enough. Catchy isn't the issue. It's whether it's exciting."