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The Most Watched TV Finales of All Time, Ranked

MovieWeb logo MovieWeb 8/17/2022 Rachel Johnson
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Some of the small screen’s most beloved and influential programs have left an immeasurable mark on television history, both in viewership and content. Many of these fan-favorite, classic shows delivered jaw-dropping numbers during their tenures, with their series finales attracting a staggering audience that remains unbeatable to this day. In today’s world, it is almost unimaginable the kind of ratings these sitcoms and dramas served up and the passionate fanfare they were given when they signed off for the last time.

Loyal watchers of the ‘90s beloved staple Friends eagerly tuned in to see if the notorious will-they-won’t-they couple Ross and Rachel would finally reconcile in the finale, just like viewers were given an emotional goodbye from the lovable Bunker clan in the concluding episode of the ‘70s smash hit All in the Family. With so many memorable and beloved shows out there, it is interesting to figure out which programs attracted the biggest numbers when it came to their respective endings. The age of big season finales are ending, as streaming enables people to watch whenever they'd like (even years later); the days of culturally shared watercooler moments of massive season finales watched by a third of the country simultaneously are likely over. Looking back, these are the most watched TV finales of all time.

Family Ties (36.3 Million)

Michael J. Fox shot to superstardom when he starred in the 1982 sitcom Family Ties, portraying the ambitious and money-loving conservative Alex P. Keaton, with the series chronicling his suburban upbringing with his liberal, former hippy parents Steven and Elyse Keaton (Michael Gross & Meredith Baxter) during the Reagan Administration. Fox would go on to win three consecutive Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the Young Republican, and the show went on to run for seven successful seasons before concluding in 1989. 36.3 million people tuned in to say goodbye to the Keatons and bid adieu to Alex as he headed off to New York City after landing his dream job.

All in the Family (40.2 Million)

Lauded for tackling controversial issues once widely thought to be unsuitable for a network comedy like racism, homosexuality, and abortion, the beloved sitcom All in the Family centers on the lovable bigot and working-class man Archie Bunker as he lives day-to-day alongside his sweet wife Edith, spirited daughter Gloria and opinionated son-in-law Michael (played by the wonderful future director Rob Reiner).

Related: These Are Some of the Best TV Theme Songs, Ranked

Heavily regarded as one of the greatest television shows in history, All in the Family aired from 1971 to 1979 and was a highly-influential comedic program that never shied away from depicting realistic and topical moments into storylines. The series finale attracted 40.2 million viewers, ultimately leading to the spin-off series Archie Bunker’s Place.

The Cosby Show (44.4 million)

Focusing on the African-American upper class family the Huxtables as parents Cliff and Clair raise their five children in Brooklyn Heights, New York, the 1984 series The Cosby Show was based on Bill Cosby’s comedy routines in his stand-up acts and ran for eight celebrated seasons. Before the disgraced comedian’s downfall in the twenty-first century, Cosby had a reputation as “America’s Dad” due to his portrayal on the program, with TV Guide calling The Cosby Show in retrospect, “TV’s biggest hit in the 1980s, and almost single-handedly revived the sitcom genre and NBC’s ratings fortunes.” Throughout its tenure, the series was the recipient of numerous accolades including Emmys, Golden Globes, and NAACP Images Awards, though now most people rightfully don't want to talk about Cosby.

Magnum P.I. (50.7 million)

The great Tom Selleck brilliantly portrayed the mustached, macho private investigator Thomas Magnum in the critically-acclaimed ‘80s staple Magnum P.I., which follows the Hawaii-based private eye as he takes on colorful cases both big and small while enjoying the finer things in life. Selleck was famously unable to don Indiana Jones’ iconic fedora due to his commitment to the series, but nonetheless his role as the wise-cracking P.I. has become one of his most memorable and revered. The program ran for eight seasons with its finale featuring Magnum deciding to return to active duty in the Navy, with the character turning to the camera and telling audiences goodnight.

Friends (52.5 million)

The ‘90s lightning in a bottle sitcom Friends famously followed six unique pals as they navigated both their personal and professional lives while living in Manhattan, with entertaining hijinks naturally ensuing. Throughout its ten-season tenure, the adored series garnered widespread acclaim and helped establish its talented cast as Hollywood heavy hitters, paving the illustrious careers of its leads like Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox.

Related: Friends: Where the Cast is Today

Famous for its iconic will-they-won’t-they couple Ross and Rachel, as well as the endearing romance between Monica and Chandler, Friends is without-a-doubt one of the most popular shows of all time. The gang took a final trip to Central Perk as they tearfully said goodbye to fans, with the characters embarking on their own exciting new journeys and most of the cast moving on to better, bigger things more diverse than Friends.

Seinfeld (76.3 million)

Fondly described as “the show about nothing,” Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld created the revered 1989 sitcom Seinfeld, which centers on a fictionalized version of the comedian and his three quirky friends in New York City: George Costanza, Cosmo Kramer, and ex-girlfriend Elaine Benes. Co-starring the sensational Jason Alexander, Michael Richards, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the lauded and celebrated series depicts the neurotic misadventures of the bickering gang and was a favorite among critics throughout its nine hilarious seasons.

The notorious series finale of Seinfeld attracted a whopping 76.3 million viewers and showcased the foursome fittingly sitting in a jail cell and hilariously arguing amongst one another, ultimately garnering a mixed response from fans; in hindsight Seinfeld was philosophically brilliant even at the end.

The Fugitive (78 million)

David Janssen headlined the thrilling 1960s crime drama series The Fugitive, appearing as Dr. Richard Kimble, a man who is wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder and is forced to go on the run in an effort to track down her real killer. Kimble is not only pursued by the relentless Police Lieutenant Philip Gerard, but also battles it out against the dangerous figure known as “The one-armed man.”

Audiences eagerly waited four seasons to discover who truly killed Kimble’s wife, watching in awe as the menacing man tumbled to his death and the good doctor was finally given his life back. The Fugitive went on to spawn the Harrison Ford led 1993 remake and multiple short-lived spin-offs and is one of the most popular programs of the ‘60s.

Cheers (80.4 million)

The 1982 feel-good sitcom Cheers famously takes place at the eponymous Boston bar “where everybody knows your name”, and features a group of locals who come together for drinks and conversation with proprietor and bartender Sam Malone (Ted Danson). The star-studded Cheers touted an impressive ensemble cast including Shelley Long, Rhea Pearlman, Kelsey Grammer, and Woody Harrelson, and its popularity led to Grammer receiving his own prominent spin-off, Frasier. After 11 seasons watching the lothario Sam woo both Diane and Rebecca, the sitcom closed its doors for good and ended with Sam returning to his favorite place, single and finally content with his life.

M*A*S*H (105 million)

Providing a fascinating look at the colorful doctors and staff at the 4077th Mobile Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, the groundbreaking 1972 war dramedy series M*A*S*H follows surgeon Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Alan Alda) and his buddies such as Trapper John McIntyre, Klinger, and Radar as they embrace humor as a way to cope with the harsh realities of the war.

Praised for its inclusion of both comedy and tragic drama, the program addressed heavy topics during its award-winning run including PTSD, death, homosexuality, and psychological problems. The series finale of M*A*S*H was the most-watched American TV broadcast in history until the 2010 Superbowl, with its final episode “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” attracting a staggering 105 million viewers, almost half the entire U.S. population at the time.

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