The 20 most-watched TV episodes of all time

John Lynch
Monday 02 October 2017 16:07 BST
The "Seinfeld" series finale.
The "Seinfeld" series finale.

In today's streaming age, initial airings of important TV episodes are no longer the cultural events they once were.

According to Nielsen's measurements of the top network telecasts of all time, the top 20 most-watched TV episodes ever all date back at least a decade.

For example, the "Seinfeld" series finale in 1998 was the most recent episode to crack the top 100.

Decades-old miniseries like "Roots" and "The Thorn Birds" and finale episodes of the most popular shows in TV history dominate the list.

We compiled the data from Nielsen on the most-watched broadcasts ever to create this list of the top episodes of TV.

Note: We've excluded all live broadcasts, including Super Bowls and award shows, as well as movies broadcast on TV, all of which appear prominently in Nielsen's top 100.

Check out the top 20 most-watched episodes of TV ever:

20. "All In The Family" -- "Edith's Problem"


Ratings: 25.2 million viewers*

Date aired: January 8, 1972

Plot (from IMDb): "Edith's irritability as of late may be a sign of her going through menopause. Archie is frustrated when he finds out she can't possibly have her 'change of life' in 30 seconds."

*Nielsen's viewer ratings are determined by measuring the average audience in each minute of a program as a representation of the total number of people who watched the show.

19. "The Fugitive" -- "The Judgment: Part 2" (Series Finale)

Ratings: 25.7 million viewers

Date aired: August 29, 1967

Plot: "Lt. Gerard agrees to work with Kimble for 24 hours to prove his innocence, because someone who may have been there when his wife was killed, posted bail for the one-armed man."

18. "Roots" -- Part 1


Ratings: 28.8 million viewers

Date aired: January 23, 1977

Plot: "A dramatization of author Alex Haley's family line from ancestor Kunta Kinte's enslavement to his descendants' liberation."

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17. "Roots" -- Part 7

Ratings: 30.1 million viewers

Date aired: January 29, 1977

16. "Roots" -- Part 4

Ratings: 31.19 million viewers

Date aired: January 26, 1977

15. "Roots" -- Part 2

Ratings: 31.4 million viewers

Date aired: January 24, 1977

14. "Roots" -- Part 3

Ratings: 31.9 million viewers

Date aired: January 25, 1977

13. "Roots" -- Part 5

Ratings: 32.5 million viewers

Date aired: January 27, 1977

12. "Roots" -- Part 6

Ratings: 32.68 million viewers

Date aired: January 28, 1977

11. "The Winds of War" -- "The Storm Breaks"


Ratings: 33.49 million viewers

Date aired: February 7, 1983

Plot: "With the German invasion of Poland underway, Pug Henry is called to Washington for a meeting with President Roosevelt. The President is impressed that Pug foresaw the German-Soviet pact and asks him to write from time to time on items that might be of interest. Pug is a bit concerned when he learns from Warren, who is at flight school, that Madeline is now living and working in New York. Rhoda Henry continues to see Palmer Kirby. Byron Henry and Natalie Jastrow make their way to Warsaw and seek the protection of Natalie's friend, Leslie Slote, who works at the US Embassy. Arrangements are made for neutral foreign nationals to be evacuated through Germany, which may pose problems for any Jews seeking to escape the carnage. Byron still isn't quite sure what to do with his life so he decides to return to Italy to complete his work for Aaron Jastrow."

10. "The Winds of War" -- "Into the Maelstrom" (Series Finale)

Ratings: 34.15 million viewers

Date aired: February 13, 1983

9. "The Thorn Birds" -- Part 2


Ratings: 35.4 million viewers

Date aired: March 28, 1983

Plot: "This miniseries covers 60 years in the lives of the Cleary family, brought from New Zealand to Australia to run their aunt Mary Carson's ranch. The story centers on their daughter, Meggie, and her love for the family's priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart. Meggie tries to forget Ralph by marrying dashing stockman Luke O'Neill, but she and Ralph are soon reunited, with tragic consequences for them both."

8. "The Thorn Birds" -- Part 4 (Series Finale)

Ratings: 35.90 million viewers

Date aired: March 30, 1983

7. "The Thorn Birds" -- Part 3

Ratings: 35.99 million viewers

Date aired: March 29, 1983

6. "The Cosby Show" -- "Say Hello to a Good Buy"


Ratings: 36.1 million viewers

Date aired: January 22, 1987

Plot: "Cliff buys a new car, but must contend with a tough salesman. Meanwhile, Rudy creates a collage of animals by cutting pictures out of Cliff's encyclopedias."

5. "Roots" -- Part 8 (Series Finale)

Ratings: 36.38 million viewers

Date aired: January 30, 1977

4. "Seinfeld" -- "The Finale"

Ratings: 40.5 million viewers

Date aired: May 14, 1998

Plot: "After George and Jerry land a production deal with NBC, the four head out for Paris on NBC's private plane and are waylaid in a small Massachusetts town."

3. "Dallas" -- "Who Done It?"


Ratings: 41.47 million viewers

Date aired: November 21, 1980

Plot: "Sue Ellen is charged with attempted murder, but the charges are dropped when the real assailant reveals herself and her shocking secret."

2. "Cheers" -- "One for the Road" (Series Finale)

Ratings: 42.36 million viewers

Date aired:May 20, 1993

Plot: "Woody embarks on his new life as City Councilman. Norm embarks on his new life as civil servant as Woody pulled some strings to get him an accounting job at City Hall. And Rebecca and Sam embark on their new relationships... possibly. Don asks Rebecca to marry him. Will her regular 'I've got to marry a rich man' impulse make her say no? And after seeing her win an ACE Cable Award on television, Sam makes the decision to get in touch with Diane. Sam lies to her about how happy he is in his life, and he suspects that she too is lying about how happy her married life is. But only a visit by Diane to Boston may make both realize what they want in life, which specifically for Sam can be summed up by a comment from Norm: 'You can never be unfaithful to your one true love.'"

1. "M*A*S*H" -- "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" (Series Finale)


Ratings: 50.15 million viewers

Date aired: February 28, 1983

Plot: "In the closing days of the Korean War, the staff of the 4077 M*A*S*H Unit find themselves facing irrevocable changes in their lives."

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Read the original article on Business Insider UK. © 2016. Follow Business Insider UK on Twitter.

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