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:
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.
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.'
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.'
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.'
Ratings: 34.15 million viewers
Date aired: February 13, 1983
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 centres 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.'
Ratings: 35.90 million viewers
Date aired: March 30, 1983
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.'
Ratings: 36.38 million viewers
Date aired: January 30, 1977
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.'
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.'
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 realise 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.''
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.'
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.