Ramayan did not set a ‘world record’ for most-viewed TV episode ever

The final episode of the American series M*A*S*H, aired on 28 February 1983, had nearly 106 million viewers

Omkar Khandekar, Uday Bhatia
Updated5 May 2020
A still from Ramayan, the 1987-88 series by Ramanand Sagar.
A still from Ramayan, the 1987-88 series by Ramanand Sagar.

On the morning of 2 May, DD National tweeted: “Thanks to all our viewers!! #RAMAYAN - WORLD RECORD!! Highest Viewed Entertainment Program Globally.” The accompanying video stated that the 16 April telecast of the mythological show was watched by 77 million viewers worldwide, making it the most-viewed episode of TV ever. An infographic compared Ramayan with Game of Thrones (17.4m) and The Big Bang Theory (18m).

Ramayan might well have beaten Game of Thrones in the battle for eyeballs. But it is hardly a world record.

It’s not even close

The final episode of the classic American series M*A*S*H (“Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”), on 28 February 1983, notched up nearly 106 million viewers. This is considerably more than the 16 April episode of Ramayan.

Ramayan is a rerun: a 1987-88 series by Ramanand Sagar, made at a time when Doordarshan was the only option for Indian TV viewers. It’s possible that somewhere in its initial run – when the telecasts would bring the nation to a standstill and around 100 million viewers were said to watch each episode – it came close to, or maybe even crossed, M*A*S*H’s record.

Internet streaming and OTT platforms were still decades away then. It was a much different world on 28 March 2020, when Ramayan started airing on DD National again.

How Ramayan achieved the numbers

A couple of factors played into Ramayan’s massive success back then.

It was a beloved series, albeit one that may look dated to modern eyes. The timing was right, with the lockdown reducing people’s entertainment options. DD National is free to air and wide in reach. And the announcement got a strong push from the government, with Information and Broadcasting minister Prakash Javdekar announcing the telecast and later tweeting a photograph of himself watching the show (he deleted it soon after).

As soon as Ramayan re-run began, Doordarshan’s viewership rose exponentially. From 9 million in the second half of January, it went to 545 million in the last week of March.

“These were the highest numbers we’d seen in the past five years,” said Romil Ramgarhia, chief operating officer of Broadcast Audience Research Centre (BARC), the official TRP measuring agency in India. “Not even a sporting event [like IPL] comes close.”

Behind the Numbers

While making the claim of the “world record”, Doordarshan drew upon the 2018 report by Glance. The LinkedIn page of Glance describes it as "the leading provider of official TV ratings for over 7000 channels in more than 120 territories."

The Glance report, called 'One TV Year in the World', offers an overview of television shows and their viewership across the world. “Looking at it, Ramayan has done better than any entertainment show across the world,” says Ramgarhia.

However, the report is only of the calendar year 2018. It doesn’t include the viewership or records of TV shows aired before or after.

BARC claims it has no idea what basis Doordarshan made its world record claim on.

“We hadn’t even mentioned Game of Thrones,” says Ramgarhia. “They might have got that data from somewhere else.”

Why is Ramayan being compared to Game of Thrones?

Although Doordarshan’s tweets suggest otherwise, the Game of Thrones finale did not hold the record for second-highest-viewed TV episode of all time.

At 19.3 million viewers (which includes linear viewing, HBO Go and HBO Now), the 19 May 2019 finale of Game of Thrones was, quite likely, the largest single episode viewership of a US show in the streaming era. But it was miles away from M*A*S*H and several other shows of that era – a time when there were only a handful of channels competing for viewer attention.

Comparing a premium cable channel like HBO with a free-to-air one like DD National doesn’t entirely make sense. “Game of Thrones might have been brought up to get your attention,” Ramgarhia reckons. After all, few in India might have heard of M*A*S*H.

Doordarshan’s response

Shashi Shekhar Vempatti, CEO of Prasar Bharti, which includes Doordarshan and All India Radio, stood by the 'world record'. “We know for a fact that several more have watched outside the TV ratings universe through mobile TV services that stream DD Channels such as JioTV, Mxplayer, etc,” he said in a text message.

“When we look at the series as a whole, more than 200 million people tuned into Ramayan during the course of lockdown,” he added.

That, however, wasn’t what the world-record claim is based on. Also, how does it compare to the record made by M*A*S*H?

Said Vempatti, “I would not read much into the record aspect beyond underscoring how families came together during the lockdown to re-experience the epic in an unprecedented manner and that the public broadcaster was effective in its role in keeping Indians ‘Stay Home Stay Safe.’”

The lockdown has eased up in places, but Doordarshan isn’t done with mythological reruns. After Ramayan and Mahabharat, you can now watch reruns of Shri Krishna.

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