A TV show’s viewership can make or break it. Some great shows have ended way too early due to low ratings. And, on the flip side, some truly mediocre shows have lived long lives due to the number of viewers (ahem, The Big Bang Theory). But then there are some shows that are great and everyone watches them. The cream of the crop, the best of the best.
In the early days of TV, before there were a million channels and streaming service original series, there were a few quality shows that everyone watched. Family time turned into TV time as everyone huddled around the television to watch the newest ep of your favorite sitcom. And these highly watched, highly rated shows also saw huge numbers when it came time for the series finales. Keep reading for the shows that had the most watched series finales ever!
20. Macgyver (ABC, 1985-1992
Finale viewers: 22.3 million
MacGyver (Richard Dean Anderson) is the most resourceful man to ever be on television. On the show, he’s a former scientist turned government agent turned professional problem solver. The show had such a large cultural impact that referring to someone as “MacGyver-ing” something is now firmly part of the cultural lexicon. The finale is the 20th most watched of all time, but the crazy thing? This didn’t even warrant it being a top-50 ranked show at the time. That’s how many people were watching television!
19. St. Elsewhere (NBC, 1982-1988)
Finales viewers: 22.5 million
This gritty medical drama was the original Grey’s Anatomy. The show dealt realistically with the everyday dramas of working in a big-city hospital while injecting bits of humor. It was acclaimed critically and commercially, with 13 Emmy wins during its run and a loyal viewership. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a ratings juggernaut for the time but when it came time for the series finale, fans turned out in droves. The finale was not only one of the highest rated of all time but also the highest rated episode of the series itself.
18. Full House (ABC, 1987-1995)
Finale viewers: 24.3 million
Full House is one of the most beloved family sitcoms of all time so it’s no wonder it had such a highly watched series finale. The show focuses on a single dad, his brother-in-law, and his BFF raising his three daughters in a highly unconventional household. Critically it wasn’t a huge success, but among fans, it was consistently in the top 30 shows on TV at the time. Fans of the show turned up to watch the finale but didn’t go away afterward, with the show still pulling in viewers through syndication to this day.
17. The Golden Girls (NBC, 1985-1992)
Finale viewers: 27.2 million
On paper, a show about four elderly friends in Miami, Florida doesn’t sound like a huge hit. But it so was. The Golden Girls turned the sitcom format on its head, delivering a premise way outside the norm. The show stayed in the top 10 for its first six seasons, only slipping below it a bit in its final stretch of episodes. The finale drew in an impressive amount of viewers, as the show was still at its peak and merely ended because one of the stars wanted to move on.
16. Happy Days (ABC, 1974-1984)
Finale viewers: 30.5 million
This idealized version of life in the 1950s and ’60s was one of the biggest shows ever during its run. It was even the number one show on the air for the 1976-1977 season! While it ebbed and flowed a bit in the ratings throughout the years, for the series finale everyone was watching. The show drew in an extremely large amount of viewers but didn’t say goodbye for good — there were several spin-offs of the show that helped the Happy Days legacy live on.
15. Gunsmoke (CBS, 1955-1975)
Finale viewers: 30.9 million
Yeah you read that right: the show was on for twenty years and still had a record-breaking viewership for the series finale. The western drama started as a radio show until it was made into a television classic. The show holds the record for the most episodes of a U.S. primetime, scripted series — well, until The Simpsons surpasses it in 2019! The show ended abruptly, with the cast not knowing they were going to to get canceled until after the final episode was shot. This meant the finale wasn’t shot or presented as a true series finale. Regardless, it was highly watched and therefore the 15th most watched finale of all time. Imagine if it was actually marketed as a series finale!
14. Everybody Loves Raymond, (CBS, 1996-2005)
Finale viewers: 32.9 million
Everybody loves Raymond indeed. The Ray Romano-starring family sitcom got a bit of a slow start, but by the show’s third season, it was consistently in the top ten TV shows every year. The finale came in 2005 — a time when TV was beginning to expand. With more expansion comes less saturation of people watching the same things, and therefore lower ratings overall. But Everybody Loves Raymond not only got astronomical finale views, they had 29% of all households watching! This is the most recent most-watched finale, gaining its status before the influx of TV shows from all kinds of different places.
13. Dallas (CBS, 1978-1991)
Finale viewers: 33.3 million
Dallas is the OG primetime soap opera. The show was no stranger to insane viewership — the “Who Done It?” episode of the series is the second most-watched scripted episode of TV of all time. The series finale didn’t get quite as many views, but it was clearly no slouch. Despite the cast departures and an overall decline of the show in the latter half of its 14 seasons, the finale still drew in large numbers. The show had become known for its cliffhangers and people wanted to see if they were going to be left hanging once more.
12. Frasier (NBC, 1993-2004)
Finale viewers: 33.7 million
Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) was a character on TV for a long time. From his beginnings on Cheers to having a show focused on him for 11 years, Crane was a television institution all his own by the time Frasier ended. The show focuses on his relationship with his father and brother, as well as his life as a radio psychiatrist. The show was a hit in every way. It won 37 Emmys altogether, including five consecutive years. The show had a huge viewership throughout its entire run, only slipping slightly in the ratings in its last season. And even then, it wasn’t by much. It’s no surprise that the show drew in the finale viewership it did!
11. Home Improvement (ABC, 1991-1999)
Finale viewers: 35.5 million
This is the show that launched Tim Allen’s career and brought a regular looking family to television. The Taylors worked hard, lived life with very little frills, and above all, exercised the ability to DIY everything. The show was one of the most watched series of the ’90s. During the 1993-1994 season, the show was number one in the ratings, giving Allen the number one show, book (his memoir), and movie (The Santa Clause) at the same time. He was the it-man in Hollywood, so it’s no wonder the series finale was as watched as it was!
10. Family Ties (NBC, 1982-1989)
Finale viewers: 36.3 million
This show is an example of conservatives and liberals living in (relative) harmony. The parents are former hippies, the kids are 1980s conservatives, and they all have to live under the same roof. The show appealed to the more liberal elk of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the conservatives being brought up during the 1980s, giving it wide appeal. As it spanned through the bulk of the ’80s, it showed the stark difference between generations. Parents and children could watch together and relate to it on different levels, thus contributing to its high viewership. The finale broke the top 10 most-watched series finales of all times, leaving an everlasting mark on TV.
9. All In The Family (CBS, 1971-1979)
Finale viewers: 40.2 million
All in the Family was wildly influential on the sitcoms we have today. While the main focus was the comedy, it also injects serious and dramatic moments into the show, much more aligned with how sitcoms are today. The show broached many controversial topics, from infidelity to racism. And it was a hit in the ratings. The show is one of only three TV shows that was number one in the ratings for five consecutive seasons. So it’s no wonder the series finale drew in over 40 million viewers! It ended on top, still in the top ten shows on TV in the ratings in its final season.
8. The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984-1992)
Finale viewers: 44.4 million
The Cosby Show remains one of the biggest sitcoms of all time. The show not only revived the flailing sitcom format in the ’80s but also put an African-American family front and center. This broadened the appeal of the show and brought even more viewers in. It was also, along with All in the Family, one of only three TV shows to spend five years at number one. During its time on air, the show never slipped out of the top 20 shows on television. While Bill Cosby’s reputation is now tarnished, the legacy he made with the Huxtables remains.
7. The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson (NBC, 1962-1992)
Finale viewers: 50 million
While this one isn’t a scripted TV series, it’s still one of the most influential and highly watched shows of all time. Johnny Carson was the Godfather of television comedy, giving young comics their first break and even indirectly contributing to the development of Saturday Night Live. In the show’s 30th year, Carson decided to retire, ending the show on a sentimental note saying,
“And so it has come to this: I, uh… am one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the people who’ve shared this stage with me for thirty years. Mr. Ed McMahon, Mr. Doc Severinsen, and you people watching. I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. And I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you would like and come back, that you’ll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.”
Late night has, unsurprisingly, not been the same since. Carson had decided to go out on top, and that he did with a finale that drew in 50 million viewers — and it wasn’t even on primetime!
6. Magnum P.I. (CBS, 1980-1988)
Finale viewers: 50.7 million
This was ultimate fantasy TV. The show focuses on a P.I. living in beautiful Hawaii — where could you go wrong?! The show held steady ratings throughout its run, but its series finale viewership is almost shocking. While the show did well for itself, it typically only averaged around 20 million views. Then the finale came along and more than doubled that. The final season was actually a product of fan outcry allegedly, as they had planned to kill Magnum (Tom Selleck) off at the end of the seventh season and fans demanded a more satisfactory ending. Well, they got their wish and everyone showed up to watch it!
5. Friends (NBC, 1994-2004)
Finale viewers: 52.5 million
Rounding out the top five is a small little show you may have heard of called Friends. Oh, you’ve heard of it and are obsessed with it? Well, so is the rest of the world. The innocuous show about a group of friends in NYC turned into a massive hit with everyone from teens to adults tuning in weekly. The stars become Hollywood royalty overnight and you can still catch the show on TV in syndication at basically any hour of the day. Friends may have ended, with some staggering numbers, but it never truly went away. The finale numbers speak to the cultural impact the show had at that time. People had to get the “Rachel” haircut and said “How you doin’?” in regular conversation. Plus, the world had to see if Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Ross (David Schwimmer) were going to get together! (Spoiler alert: they do.)
4. Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998)
Finale viewers: 76.3 million
A lot of people tuned in every week to watch a show about nothing. Seinfeld is a curious success story. When the show initially aired and was tested for audiences, people just didn’t like it. The viewership, nor fanbase, was there for the first two seasons, really. And then suddenly people found the show hidden amongst all the other things on TV and fell in love with Seinfeld. The show spent the latter half of its run at the number three spot or above, showing just how popular it was. When the show left the airwaves, it was the number one show on TV at the time. This accounts for its insane series finale views. For perspective: there are over 20 MILLION people between this and Friends, the next most-watched finale!
3. The Fugitive, (ABC, 1963-1967)
Finale viewers: 78 million
The Fugitive was the OG Prison Break. When a man is wrongly convicted of killing his wife, he takes an opportunity to escape police custody and find the real killer. The show was a wildly successful hit as people watched every week to see if justice would be served. The second part of the finale, which finally sees our fugitive exonerated, was viewed by nearly half the people in the U.S. with television sets at the time. Today that would be inconceivable with the oversaturation of TV shows. But back then, it was not only possible it was plausible since there was very little else on!
2. Cheers (NBC, 1982-1993)
Finale viewers: 84.4 million
There has definitely never been a more successful sitcom than Cheers. After spending its first season very nearly the last show in the ratings, it bounced back spectacularly. By the third season, 12th in the ratings was the lowest Cheers would go, spending most of its run in the top ten. The affable bar-comedy had an ensemble that brought a little of everything to the table. Viewers could watch and see themselves in one of the many characters lamenting their lives around a pint of beer. The series finale is still the most-watched for a sitcom in TV history. But it’s not the most-watched finale ever…
1. M*A*S*H, (CBS, 1972-1983)
Finale viewers: 105.9 million
The most-watched series finale of all time and the only one to break triple digits is, of course, M*A*S*H. The series follows the medical and support staff stationed in an army hospital in South Korea during the Korean War. The show told real war stories from army doctors and provided a realistic insight into life in the midst of war. Despite its serious subject matter, the show didn’t shy away from comedy and even won a Best Comedy Series Emmy (along with about 100 nominations!). The series finale was the most-watched episode of television, period, until the 2010 Super Bowl usurped it. But rest assured, it’ll forever be the most-watched scripted television episode ever. With the number of TV shows there are today, it seems pretty unlikely hordes of people will rush to the TV at 8 PM one night to all watch the same show.