On December 8, 1952, 61 years ago, I Love Lucy aired the episode “Lucy is Enceinte,” in which Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball), after telling neighbor Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance) that she’s going to have a baby, tries to find the best way to tell her husband, Ricky (Ball’s real-life hubby, Desi Arnaz). When she can’t find the “right time” to do it, she interrupts Ricky’s nightclub act to tell him. The real-life tears of Ball and Arnaz that followed made the final cut, and made the episode a classic, one of the most touching television scenes ever filmed.
Thus followed a series of episodes filmed before Ball had to leave the series and rest, all about a pregnant woman and the various dilemmas she faces; aside from being groundbreaking television, they were some of the show’s funniest, and most real, episodes.
The penultimate episode, in which Lucy had her baby, “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” aired on January 19, 1953, and was seen by a record-breaking 71.7 percent of the television audience (roughly 44 million people), more viewers than President Eisenhower got for his televised inauguration the next day. It remains a record surpassed only by Elvis Presley’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, September 9, 1956 (watched by 82.6 percent of the viewing audience).
The pregnancy story line catapulted I Love Lucy to the No. 1 spot in the ratings that season (1952-1953, the second season of the series, a position it held for a total of four years out of its six-year run (the other two seasons, the show ranked No. 2). That kind of audience is no longer possible due to the fracturing of the TV market by the many cable networks that have launched in the past few decades, most of which have had to settle for capturing a much smaller niche, or specialized, audience.
Lucille Ball had her baby by C-section on the same day I Love Lucy broadcast the Ricardo’s blessed event. Ball and her “$50 Million Baby,” Desi Arnaz Jr., were on the cover of the first national edition of TV Guide. The love affair between TV Guide and Lucille Ball, and her classic series I Love Lucy, continued over 60 years; Lucy was on the magazine’s cover more than any other star, and just this year, celebrating 60 years of its national edition, TV Guide recently voted “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” the No. 1 most riveting moment on television. Ever.
Because I Love Lucy has never been off the air since its original broadcast years (1951-1957), and because the show remains extremely popular in the United States and many countries, it is estimated that I Love Lucy’s most popular episode, and television’s most riveting moment, is the most-viewed television episode of all time.
Not bad for a washed-up film star and her bongo-playing husband.