ABC’s broadcast of the first live Grammy ceremony in 1971 remains the highest-rated, according to Nielsen data and archival reports from the trade magazine Variety.
CBS has carried the Grammys every year since 1973, so it may not be remembered that ABC had shown the ceremony during the previous two years.
Here are the 10 top-rated Grammy telecasts, according to Nielsen data:
The first Grammy Award ceremony was held in 1959. For several years after that, the show was filmed or taped, and highlights were aired during a one-hour NBC special called “The Best on Record.” In November 1970, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) announced that the awards would be held as a live event for the first time.
ABC swooped in to nab the broadcast rights from NBC, in the same year it also outbid the Peacock network for the Tony Awards. After spending the 1950s and ’60s in the Nielsen ratings cellar, ABC felt like it was in position to reach for the top spot, thanks to the success of shows like “Marcus Welby M.D.” and its “Movie Of The Week,” and spent aggressively.
Viewers who flocked to the Grammy broadcast saw a ceremony dominated by Simon & Garfunkel, whose “Bridge Over Troubled Water” won Album of the Year and Record Of the Year. Simon alone won Song of the Year and Best Contemporary Song for writing the title cut.
The show’s’ 31.3 rating and 47 share made it the No. 1 show for the seven days ended March 21, securing an ABC win for that week. However, at the end of the 1970-71 season, CBS and NBC were tied for first, and ABC was third yet again.
The second-highest rated Grammy telecast is well remembered as a celebration of Michael Jackson and “Thriller.” Jackson took home eight Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year. CBS garnered a 30.8 rating and 45 share of the audience, as 51.67 million viewers watched the ceremony.
– David B. Wilkerson