Eyes Glued to the Tube: the Most Watched TV Episodes of All Time

Image Credit: Flickr by Videocrab
Leave your namby-pamby Twin Peaks at the door! Artsy-fartsy critical darlings be damned! We’ve got a taste for the ratings jugular and we’re hungry to feed! These are shows that snobs scorn for the very reason the rest of us love them: they’re shared cultural experiences. Our top 5 most watched TV shows comprise a cross section of televisions cultural milieu: everything from comedy to drama, war to joy, weddings, funerals, and maybe a few poop jokes. So, pop some corn and remind yourself of these old favorites, while we indulge in a little nostalgia ourselves.

5 Gone With the Wind telecast (part one), 1979

Don’t give a damn? Well, frankly, you should. No real surprise that the highest grossing movie of all time (in terms of ticket sales) would encourage just as much fervor from television viewers. What is surprising is that a few hundred thousand less people tuned in for part two. I guess they just suddenly didn’t care how the movie ended. Another saga involving the Civil War (albeit from a strictly white perspective), Gone With the Wind is one of the most familiar and tumultuous love stories in the history of movies. For a movie so full of death and personal wreckage, the movie is always a joy to watch because of its captivating characterizations.

4 Michael Jackson Talks… to Oprah, 1993

From the 80s to the 90s, there was only one thing everyone wanted: more Michael Jackson. There was only one problem: Jackson’s guarded stance on his personal life. Indeed, this revelatory interview proved Jackson to be a man of contradictions. He was the biggest star in the world, but hated being seen. He sang with unparalleled power and intensity, yet spoke like a timid lamb. But Oprah’s interview did allow the people to see Jackson as he truly was. Honestly, a little bit kooky from time to time. As a bonus, fans also got to drool over the luxurious Never Land Ranch, complete with movie theater and amusement park.

3 Roots Part VIII (finale), 1977

ABC made a costly mistake in their programming, choosing to play all eight episodes of Roots on consecutive nights to get it off the air before sweeps started. Ouch! Time has proven Roots to be perhaps the most iconic miniseries of all time, and it’s probably the gold standard against which all others are judged. Chronicling five generations of an African family’s struggles through abduction, slavery, prejudice, and war in America, Roots is ultimately a story of perseverance. The series ends with Kunta Kinte’s great-great grandson hearing Kunta Kinte’s story, reminding us of the old adage that those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.

2 Dallas, “Who Done It?” 1980

The most infamous cliffhanger in television history resulted in a huge ratings bump that ensured the longevity of the Dallas series. Of course, the audience’s fascination with J.R.’s shooting is entangled in J.R.’s sickly charisma. A despicable and loathsome bastard, J.R. is a great example of a character that you love to hate. Knowing this, the shows producers chose to put off resolving the cliffhanger for sweeps, a bold move that clearly played off. Playing the highest rated show at the time during sweeps would be like hitting a home run during game seven of the World Series. This saga has been spoofed and referenced so many times, you might already be somewhat familiar with it before seeing it.

1 M*A*S*H Series Finale, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” 1983

The old saying about M*A*S*H is that it lasted longer than the war it portrayed. Such tragic-comic sensibilities typify the series as a whole, no more so than on its final episode. All the old favorites are here for one last waltz: Hawkeye, Klinger, Hot Lips, Hunnicutt. In fitting with the shows more serious themes toward the end of its run, the episode starts with Hawkeye reliving a nervous breakdown. However, it’s not entirely bleak; like the rest of the series, the finale managed to be funny, heart-warming, and poignant all in one deft and brilliant motion. The perfect way to say goodbye to a show we all grew up with.


Clearly, shared television experiences are not as common as they used to be. Much of this has to do with premium services, like streaming video and DVR, augmenting a show’s actual viewer ship versus its ratings. At top 5, we admonish you to investigate these programs regardless. After all, they’re the most popular programs of all time for a reason. Oh, and before you go bad mouthing us: Yeah, we didn’t include sports programs because there’s a different section for that. Besides, did you really want to read two Superbowl summaries?

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