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The Most Popular TV Shows of All Time

The way we watch television is changing, and so is the way we measure viewership: 2023 was the first year in which viewers who no longer pay for traditional TV such as cable service outnumbered those who still do. Cord-cutting is increasingly the norm as people flock to Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services. The small screen remains a favorite passive pastime all the same, with Nielsen ratings and other metrics  showing why the following seven shows have proven so enormously popular with viewers around the world. All of them proved popular throughout their run, with individual episodes (often their finales) setting records for viewership.

The Fugitive (1963-67)

Before it was a Harrison Ford movie, The Fugitive was a wildly popular TV series. It took all 120 episodes — 90 broadcast in black and white, 30 in color — to reveal what really happened to the wrongly accused Dr. Richard Kimble (portrayed by David Janssen), and America was more than ready by the end. The series finale, “The Judgment,” set a record when 78 million people watched it, but The Fugitive’s place atop the ratings mountain didn’t last long. When the series ended in 1967, the show that eventually dethroned it was just five years from making its own debut on the small screen.

Mash 1972-83)

M*A*S*H aired 256 episodes throughout its 11 seasons, none of which drew more viewers than its record-shattering finale. When “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” aired on February 28, 1983, around 105 million viewers were there to see how the beloved series ended — the most of any television broadcast in American history at that point, a record that stood until Super Bowl XLIV in 2010. Nearly 60% of American households helped make it the most-watched episode of any TV show by tuning in, a record unlikely to be broken in the streaming era.

Roots (1977)

Few series have become cultural phenomena to the same extent as Roots, the miniseries about slavery’s history and legacy based on Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. In addition to critical acclaim and a slew of accolades — the show won a Golden Globe, a Peabody Award, and nine of the 37 Emmys for which it was nominated — Roots broke Nielsen ratings records during the eight consecutive nights on which it aired, and every episode still ranks among the 100 most-watched episodes of all time. Roughly 51% of all American households gathered around their television sets for the finale, and an estimated 140 millionviewers watched the show overall. It seems to have been all anyone could talk about in January 1977: “Theaters and restaurants emptied out during the show,” wrote TIME magazine’s Frank Rich two years later. “Hundreds of colleges started Roots courses; the National Archives in Washington found itself flooded by citizens’ requests for information about their ancestors.” In addition to a 1979 sequel, Rootsalso inspired a 2016 remake.

Dallas (1978-91)

Dallas was well known for its cliffhangers throughout its 13-year run, but none of them riled the country into a frenzy the way its third-season finale did. “A House Divided” premiered on March 21, 1980, and after it aired, everyone was asking the same question: “Who shot J.R.?”When that burning question was answered exactly eight months later, 76% of all television viewers in the U.S. were watching — meaning every other show broadcast combined for just a quarter of the night’s total viewership. That amounted to some 90 million people, a record that stood until the M*A*S*H finale. The cliffhanger’s massive success helped popularize the now-common practice of ending a season with unresolved questions, including the Simpsons spoof “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” It wasn’t just this one episode that drew viewers, however — Dallas was a ratings successthroughout its run, with seasons 4 through 8 all ranked either first or second according to Nielsen. 

Cheers (1982-93)

It’s the place where everybody knows your name, and just about everyone in the country tuned in when Cheers aired the last of its 275 episodes. “One for the Road” received a Nielsen rating of 45.5, meaning 45.5% of all American televisions were tuned to the episode, with a total viewership of some 93 million. To this day, M*A*S*H is the only series finale to be seen by more people — even massive hits such as Seinfeld (76 million), Friends (52.5 million), and Game of Thrones (13.6 million) didn’t come close.

The World of the Married (2020)

Traditional television viewership may be declining in the U.S., but it’s never been more popular in South Korea. Viewership records have been set and broken time and again over the last several years, as K-dramas have proved increasingly popular abroad as well. TV ratings are measured in terms of the percentage of households that tune in to a given episode, and the twisty relationship miniseries The World of the Married holds the current record in its home country. A full 28.37% of Korean homes (more than 14 million people) tuned in to the finale, breaking the previous record of 23.77% set by Sky Castle a year earlier.

Squid Game (2021)

South Korea is also responsible for Netflix’s most-watched series of all time: Squid Game, the global sensation that 142 millionhouseholds pressed play on for a total of 1.65 billion viewing hours within four weeks of its release; the only other Netflix series to crack 1 billion viewing hours in that time frame are Wednesday and Stranger Things 4. Squid Gamealso won awards across the globe and has been renewed for a second season, which is expected to be wildly popular as well.

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