January 19th, 1953
For one day in television history, American viewers truly proved they loved Lucy. January 19th marks the 60th anniversary of the highest Nielsen share achieved in television history, as 98.6% of households watching television tuned in to watch Little Ricky, the fictional son of Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, become introduced to the world in the I Love Lucy episode ‘Lucy Goes to the Hospital’. For a comparison, the M*A*S*H series finale earned a Nielsen share of 77%.
“In today’s fragmented world of hundreds of TV channels and dozens of mobile media viewing platforms, even the most popular TV broadcasts are seen by just a small fraction of the viewing audience,” said Gregg Oppenheimer, son of I Love Lucy creator, Jess Oppenheimer. “It’s awe-inspiring to think that my dad and his co-writers Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. were able to write something that was experienced and enjoyed by practically everyone in the country at the same time.”
Beyond setting ratings records, the episode also challenged established societal norms. Lucy Ricardo was the first character to be pregnant on television, and Lucille Ball was the first actress to have her actual pregnancy written into a show’s storyline.
Lucille Ball gave birth to her second child, Desi Arnaz, Jr., by a cesarean section scheduled for earlier that same day before the episode aired on national television. Time truly stood still for this landmark episode. Not only did the episode’s ratings completely eclipse those of the first-ever televised presidential inauguration the following day, Colonel McCormick, owner and publisher of the Chicago Times, even scheduled his inauguration-eve party for Dwight Eisenhower around the episode so that the gala would finish at 9pm – just in time to roll out a television and allow the dignitaries to watch the telecast.
“It’s a very cool moment in television history to recognize because it gives one a sense of the significance of the show in American culture at that time, and because [a 98.6% Nielsen share] will almost certainly never happen again,” said Journey Gunderson, executive director at the Lucy Desi Center for Comedy.
In honor of this anniversary, Gregg Oppenheimer will be releasing his audiobook, I Love Lucy: The Untold Story. The audiobook can be downloaded on iTunes or Amazon.com, and all proceeds will go towards the Motion Picture & Television Fund.