I'm looking at TV broadcasts with the highest percentage of households tuned in. With much more competition nowadays, this year's Super Bowl viewership achievement seems all the more impressive. Some shows with large audiences did not make my list, because even though their Nielsen ratings were high, their total percentage of household viewers did not come close to the ones on the "most viewed" list. For example, the Friends finale episode, "The Last One," had 52.5 million viewers, but that was only 29.8% of all households watching TV that night. The final episode of Survivor's first season, "The Final Four," had 51.7 million viewers, but that was only 28.2% of all households. The 72nd Academy Awards broadcast in 2000 (the year American Beauty won Best Picture, beating out The Sixth Sense, the same year that The Matrix and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace were also competing in lesser categories) attracted an audience of 46.3 million, which was only 29.2% of all households.
Looking at the list of most watched TV broadcasts of all time, it is clear that the TV shows with the most buzz attract the largest audience. Series finales of popular shows are by far the biggest TV events, but there are also sports events tied to scandals, high profile mini-series, and shows with must-see special guests.
M*A*S*H final episode, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" (1983) - 60.2% of households (viewership estimated at 105.97 million).
This was the reigning champ until this year's Super Bowl knocked it off its throne. Adapted from the Robert Altman movie, the television series became a huge hit and lasted longer than the Korean War, which was the setting for the award-winning comedy, which had plenty of serious moments throughout its run.
Dallas, "Who Shot J.R.?" (1980) - 53.3% of households
No cliffhanger compares to this one. All summer long, Americans were asking who shot the "love-to-hate-him" villain J.R. Ewing (played wonderfully by Larry Hagman) in this popular primetime soap opera. This episode finally revealed the shooter after months of speculation.
Roots finale (1977) - 51.1% of households
Unfortunately, they don't make epic mini-series like this anymore. This was in the age of epic, event, all-star cast mini-series (like Jesus of Nazareth, The Thorn Birds, etc.) when it seemed like everyone was watching the same shows and talking about them the next day. The eight-episode Roots series was one of the greatest of all time.
Winter Olympics, Ladies Figure Skating (Short Program), Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tonya Harding (1994) - 48.5% of households
Even people who wouldn't be caught dead watching ladies figure skating were glued to their TV screens to see what happens next in the tabloid-scandal ice skating saga of Kerrigan vs. Harding. Harding's husband had hired a goon to break Kerrigan's kneecap in an earlier competition. You cannot make this stuff up! And the drama continued in the Olympics, with an emotionally distraught Harding stopping her routine early and tearfully begging the judges to let her start again because her skates' shoelaces had come undone.
Gone with the Wind telecast (1976) - 47.7% of households
Before VCRs and DVDs and bootleg copies of motion pictures, it was a big event when theatrical films were broadcast on television (even if they were often brutally edited for content, running time, and commercial breaks). This broadcast of the classic 1939 film aired over two nights and introduced millions more fans to the melodramatic saga of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara.
The Day After (1983) - 46% of households
At the height of the Cold War, when people feared that Mutually Assured Destruction would not be enough to stop the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from annihilating themselves and the rest of the world with their ever-growing stockades of inter-continental nuclear-armed missiles, along came this two-part television movie that grabbed the world's attention with a grim "what if" scenario. I still remember the nightmares I had as a kid after watching this!
The Fugitive final episode, "The Judgement, Part 2" (1967) - 45.9%
Will the final episode of Lost this year reach as large an audience as this finale? At least the Fugitive's last broadcast neatly wrapped up the series' loose ends, having having Dr. Kimble finally confront the "One-Armed Man."
Cheers final episode, "One for the Road" (1993) - 45.5% of households
It's so hard to end a final episode on the right note, but this one did it very well. The final shot of Sam Malone (played by Ted Danson), pausing for one last look right before he shuts the lights and closes the door of his pub, still resonates.
The Ed Sullivan Show, the first appearance of The Beatles (1964) - 45.3% of households
Nowadays, music fans see their favorite performing artists everywhere -- on MTV, in commercials, on tabloid TV programs, on YouTube video clips -- you can't esacpe them. But back then, it was a rare golden opportunity to see a band like The Beatles, at the height of their Beatlemania popularity, singing live on television. And their appearance on the show only boosted their fame even higher.
Besides the next Super Bowl, what other upcoming TV broadcasts have the potential to attract so many viewers in the near future?