TV is a much less unified experience than it used to be. Years ago, there were fewer programs, and that meant that every show was watched by more people. When those shows happened to last a long time, they built up a certain level of devotion that made them must-watches, especially when it came time for key episodes to air. Of course, these episodes were often finales of one sort or another, but that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, these episodes weren’t special in any way at all.
This list is focused on whether an episode earned a higher ratings share. This number measures what percentages of households were tune into an individual episode. Since the ratings system has changed drastically over the course of TV history, ratings shares provide a more consistent metric. Also the total number of televisions in the country has grown over time, which means that looking at ratings share allows us to provide a greater level of certainty. This list also limits itself to scripted series, and to one entry per series.
With all that in mind, here’s the 15 Most Watched TV Episodes Of All Time.
15. Magnum P.I. series Finale – “Resolutions”
Magnum P.I. was never an overly complicated show. It was sold largely on Tom Selleck, who became a mega-star following the show’s conclusion. In the end, Thomas is forced to help a former lover in Hawaii. The episode is a satisfying conclusion to the show’s run, and one that ties in procedural elements of Magnum’s story with the story’s overarching elements.
The show was incredibly popular throughout its run, and the finale was no exception. The final episode garnered 32% of all households. Some of them were likely watching it to see Tom Selleck and others may have been attracted to the show’s procedural elements, while still others were invested in the romantic plots. All of these elements were serviced in the finale, and that’s what made it worth its weight. Magnum P.I. defined an era of detective shows and police procedurals, and earned itself a spot on this list in the process.
14. Friends Series Finale – “The Last One”
Everyone wanted to be on Friends. They lived a beautiful, simple life in New York City, and enthralled the entire world for a decade. When it finally came to an end, it was a bittersweet moment that was also one of the last “must-watch television” events ever. TV episodes don’t draw massive audiences now the way they did for shows like Friends, which, in addition to being remarkably charming throughout its ten seasons, also happened to be a series that defined an entire generation.
In the series finale, Ross and Rachel finally get together, Monica and Chandler move out of their apartment, and Joey and Phoebe continue to exist. The beauty of this finale is that it closes out a chapter without feeling too sad. Everyone still has a life; the viewer’s just not a part of it anymore. The episode earned a 35.6% share of all households. Millions tuned in to watch the end of Friends, which might have been the last unifying television experience ever.
13. All in the Family – “Edith’s Problem”
All in the Family was both revolutionary and conventional. It was the kind of show that used the format of a sitcom to deal with issues that could be incredibly complex. In “Edith’s Problem,” the show proved how game changing it could be. “Edith’s Problem” focuses on Edith, who seems to be going through menopause. Archie, a man who is annoyed by pretty much everything, is forced to reckon with the fact that Edith’s life is changing in a real way that will have an impact on their marriage.
All in the Family used its platform to talk about real problems, and this episode was no exception. It managed to mine laughs out of very real situations, and that’s part of what made it such an influential show. “Edith’s Problem” was clearly something that many could relate to. 40.7% of households tuned in for the episode, making it the most watched episode in the show’s historic run.
12. Gunsmoke: “Love Thy Neighbor”-40.9%
Shows don’t have runs like Gunsmoke anymore. The show ran for 20 seasons, and aired roughly 38 episodes each season. Now, with episodes shortening and the number of different series growing, individual shows don’t leave as large a mark as something like Gusnmoke certainly did. “Love Thy Neighbor” was by all accounts a fairly conventional episode. It focuses on the theft of a sack of potatoes that leads to a war between two families.
“Love Thy Neighbor” aired in the middle of the show’s sixth season. The episode was a darker one for the show, ending with a gun duel that created losses on both sides. Gunsmoke earned 40.9% of all households in this episode. It was one of the few dramas on the air at the time, and it influenced everything that would come after it. It also happened to be incredibly popular, which is how it earned a spot on this list.
11. The Winds of War – “Part 7”
Mini-series were often much-watched events in television’s earlier days. They were serialized, but over a short span of time so that viewers could watch every bit without making a commitment that was too large or time consuming. These miniseries were often events that earned massive ratings, and The Winds of War was no exception. This miniseries focused on World War II, taking a simultaneously intimate and broad approach by focusing in on two individual characters while looking at the major events that shaped the war.
When the miniseries aired in the 1980s, it was the perfect distance for those who had lived through the war, and those who were learning about it for the first time. In Part 7, the series wrapped up its story by detailing the war’s end and how it impacted things for the show’s characters and their world. The series earned a 41% ratings share for the episode, and managed to teach everyone a thing or two.
10. The Cosby Show – “Say Hello to a Good Buy”
The Cosby Show was something new. It normalized black middle class life in a way no show had up to that point, and it also quickly became one of the most popular shows on the air. This is another instance in which everything simply fell into place for the show. “Say Hello to a Good Buy” wasn’t a special episode in any traditional sense. The plot of the episode simply focuses on Cliff’s attempts to buy a new car, working against a tough salesman.
In some ways, it’s the normality of the episode that really stands out. There’s nothing all that special about it, but it’s also a perfect summation of what the show represents. Cliff was just a normal guy with normal problems, and in this episode, he wants a new car. The episode garnered a 41.3% ratings share, which the show undoubtedly deserved. It quietly and subtly changed the game for 8 seasons.
9. Seinfeld Finale – “The Finale”
Not everybody loved the Seinfeld finale, but everybody watched it. The show ended its historic run by pointing out what many had understood from the start – the main characters on Seinfeld are kind of the worst. The foursome of Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer end up on trial for their crimes, and the series ends with the crew going to jail for the harm that they’ve done to the world as a whole.
On one hand, this allowed characters from the show’s past to infiltrate its present, and condemn the show’s central quartet for their horrible behavior. On the other hand, the finale left many unsatisfied, but it also stayed true to the roots of Seinfeld. This was a show without lessons and completely uninterested in imparting wisdom. It wasn’t heartfelt and sweet. The show’s finale, which earned a 41.3% ratings share, was cynical to the bone. It’s not satisfying, but at least it’s honest.
8. Bonanza – “The Pure Truth”
One of two western series that aired for roughly the same length of time, Bonanza only lasted 14 seasons, but managed to earn higher ratings than Gunsmoke for a single broadcast. “The Pure Truth” is a story about a setup. When one of the show’s central characters is accused of a bank robbery, he’s forced to seek the help of a strange prospector.
Bonanza is another instance in which an episode managed to land on this list without feeling particularly remarkable. Instead, the episode is consistent with the tone of the show as a whole. Bonanza dealt with difficult issues in manageable ways, like many early dramas. It brought trouble to the surface, but always managed to resolve it within the hour. The formula worked wonderfully for the show, which managed to garner the attention of 41.6% of all households when it aired in 1964. There’s a reason these shows were on the air for so long. They were widely beloved, and widely watched.
7. Beverly Hillbillies – “The Giant Jack Rabbit”
Initially, this random episode of The Beverly Hillbillies may seem like a surprise, especially considering many of the shows that have come before. The Beverly Hillbillies was undoubtedly popular in 1964 when the episode aired, but it doesn’t completely account for the incredible size of the audiences for “The Giant Jack Rabbit.” This episode simply sees Granny confusing a kangaroo for an enormous jack rabbit.
The most plausible explanation for the episode’s high placement is that it followed Lyndon Johnson’s first State of the Union Address, which came less than three months after the death of President John F. Kennedy. Families may have watched the speech, and simply kept on watching through The Beverly Hillbillies. Whatever the case may be, the show earned 44% of all households that night, which was more than enough to secure its placement on this list. Whether the kangaroo was a jack rabbit or not, this episode will live in the annals of history forever.
6. Thorn Birds – “Pt. III”
Another mini-series entry on this list, The Thorn Birds was an adaptation of a successful novel about a priest who is forced to choose between love and rising within the Catholic Church. Many of the show’s episodes were highly watched, but Part III was the show’s pinnacle. It actually kept the central figures apart, as they work to forget each other in pursuit of their own happiness.
The Thorn Birds is a story of love that’s been torn apart, and it kept viewers gripped for the entirety of its run. Part III wasn’t the end point of the series. Instead, it was the tragic middle, the point at which both tried to deal with living separate lives. The episode earned a 43.2% ratings share, ensnaring viewers across the country with its story of love and loss. The Thorn Birds showed audiences how amazing a serialized story could be. They just keep you coming back for more.
5. Cheers Series Finale – “One for the Road”
The Cheers series finale was truly the end of an era. Cheers was a cultural experience shared regularly by tens of millions. It was the kind of show that didn’t require weekly watching, and so most people were comfortable drifting in and out as they pleased. The one must-watch event in the show’s run, though, was its finale, which came after more than a decade of seasons.
What’s so markedly strange about this episode is the way it maintains a status quo, even as it ends an era. It tells viewers that it’s okay to move on, even as the characters within the show continue to live their lives. Cheers ended beautifully, and millions tuned in to watch it unfold. 45.5% of households tuned in to watch the show come to an end, and all of them left sad but satisfied. The show was over, and it was time to go on. After all, the bar was closed.
4. The Fugitive Series Finale – “The Judgment Part 2”
The Fugitive may be best known today as a Harrison Ford movie, but that movie was based on an incredibly popular television show from the 1960s. Like the film, the show followed Richard Kimble as he ran from the law after being accused of his wife’s murder. In the finale, Kimble confronts his wife’s actual killer, and the mystery that had spanned the course of the series is finally resolved.
In many ways, The Fugitive provided a model for modern drama, combining elements of procedural storytelling with one overarching narrative. That hook is precisely what forced viewers to tune in in such large numbers for the finale. 45.9% of households watched the final confrontation unfold, hoping to see their years of dedication to the show pay off. In the end, The Fugitive left millions of Americans satisfied, and paved the way not only for a film, but for much of the television that would come after it.
3. Roots – “Pt. VIII”
Roots gripped America from its very first moment, in part because of its limited nature. Roots demanded that it be watched to completion, which isn’t to say that you couldn’t follow it if you only watched bits of it. In giving the country a shorter experience, though, it encouraged massive numbers of people to watch it to completion. As the series caught steam, it caught audience members as well.
By the time the show reached its final episode, it had enthralled the nation, which is fitting. Roots was a story about the horrors of slavery, but it was also a story about its lasting impact, even today. Watching Roots allowed you to build on a history that didn’t even begin in America. Kunta Kinte had strength, and his descendants followed his lead. What’s amazing about Roots is that it doesn’t feel like a history lesson, and that’s proven by the huge numbers of people who watched it end. 51.1% of households watched the finale. It deserved nothing less.
2. Dallas – “Who Done It?”
This episode wasn’t a series finale. It wasn’t even a season finale. “Who Done It?” was the fourth episode in the show’s fourth season. This episode garnered so many viewers for one reason. Everyone had to know who had shot J.R.
Dallas is perhaps most famous for this cliffhanger, which left audiences unsure about who had shot one of the main characters for an incredible length of time. When the information was finally revealed, millions of people tuned in to found out who had committed the crime.
Dallas revealed TV’s potential with the cliffhanger and the frenzy that surrounded it. It became clear that TV could be used to tell serialized stories, and that viewers would care enough to tune in every week, hoping to unravel what they seen in prior weeks. While it may have been seen as a risk at the time, it’s one that undoubtedly paid off. “Who Done It?” achieved an astonishing 53.3% ratings share.
1. M*A*S*H Series Finale – “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”
It’s almost remarkable that M*A*S*H manages to hold onto the top spot on this list so long after its finale aired. Still, this is yet another in the group of finales that gave their audiences perfectly pitched endings to shows that were beloved for over a decade. With M*A*S*H, the finale, titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” perfectly mixed heartbreak with sentiment, creating a finale that was true to the experiences of the war that was so often the show’s backdrop.
The finale was watched by an incredible 60.2% of American households. It was an event this country experienced together, and it was one that nobody wanted to miss. M*A*S*H defined what a television show could do. It came into our homes, it touched us, moved us, and made us laugh. When it left, it felt like the loss of a friend. It was sad, but it was time. We watched it together, laughing and crying and finally, signing off.
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