Most-Watched Television Finales: Top 20 Of All Time
The 20 most-watched television finales include Cheers, Seinfeld, The Fugitive, and of course, M*A*S*H.
MOST-WATCHED TELEVISION FINALES
Most-Watched Television Finales 1 – 10
- The Fugitive
- Magnum PI
- The Cosby Show
- All in the Family
- Family Ties
- Home Improvement
TV Finales 11-20
When we think of the most-watched television finales ever, some truly iconic names pop up. Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld, and M*A*S*H all come to mind with some of their send-offs among the most-talked-about moments in television history.
And the history of television is, of course, a long one, with the small screen becoming an almost essential part of our day-to-day media lives. But over the years, with viewing habits changing (hello Netflix), we aren’t seeing some of the astronomical ratings figures from years gone by. This is why looking back at the most-watched television finales of all time is such an interesting exercise. It hammers home just how much some programs were part of our everyday vernacular. These things were massive.
Here we take a look at the top 20 most-watched television finales of all time. And you’ll notice that most of the big ones are from decades ago. It’s unlikely we will ever see some of these numbers beaten again.
Episode: Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen
Date: February 28, 1983
Viewers: 106 million
In terms of most-watched television finales, we can pretty confidently say nothing is going to touch M*A*S*H. The 106 million people who tuned in for the last episode is more than 20 million above the next closest finale. By comparison, in 2023, 113 million people tuned in to watch the Super Bowl. So yes, the M*A*S*H finale gripped the country in the same way that the biggest television event of the year does now. At the time, it was the largest-ever viewing audience for a single program.
“Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” wasn’t just the end of a television series, it was the end of an era. At two and a half hours, this was really a television film more than an episode, culminating the stories of everyone’s favorite group of war-time surgeons.
But really what it sort of signaled, was an end to American war itself, at least for the time being. For a certain generation who’d gone from World War II to the Korean War (where M*A*S*H took place), to Vietnam, the 1983 finale came at a time when it felt like a certain chapter of America was closing, maybe for good. Were the after-effects still there? For sure. But the series wrapping up the way it did, I think, felt more like a healing process than a sitcom.
In terms of cultural significance and zeitgeist buy-in, the M*A*S*H finale won’t be topped, probably ever. The show combined humor and pathos in a way only a “war comedy” could really ever do. The finale encapsulated some of these ideas, showing that though the characters were all leaving (the war is over), they are, for better or worse, going to take things with them as well.
With “Suicide is Painless” playing in the background, Alan Alda’s Hawkeye seeing the simple “GOODBYE” written in rocks over the landscape will go down as maybe the greatest send-off ever. It’s easy to see why this ranks number one for most-watched television finales. – Doug Norrie
Episode: One for the Road
Date: May 20, 1993
Viewers: 93 million
Making your way in the world today, well, it takes everything you got. Such was the case for the cast of characters in the greatest fictional bar ever created. Cheers lasted 11 seasons with one of the strongest ratings and awards runs in television history, and closed on its own terms.
Sure, in some parts it hinged on the love life of Ted Danson’s Sam Malone and the will-they-won’t-they aspects of his relationships with Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers or Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca Howe. But really it was a show about friendship and how groups of unlikely characters can mesh together into one big bar family. Woody, Frasier, Cliff, Norm, Carla, and even the late Coach were all part of a feeling more than a cast.
The finale, “One for the Road,” was more than an hour long and didn’t have commercials, which was almost unheard of at the time. This most-watched television finale brought Sam and Diane back together, and apart again before solidifying the idea that Sam’s great love wasn’t any of the women, but the bar itself. – Doug Norrie
3. The Fugitive
Episode: The Judgment
Date: August 22 & 29, 1967
Viewers: 78 million
Before we got Harrison Ford jumping off of a waterfall to avoid the long arm of Tommy Lee Jones’s law, there was The Fugitive television series which aired for four seasons between 1963 and 1967. The beats were familiar in that Dr. Richard Kimble (played by David Janssen) is a doctor wrongly accused of killing his wife. He’s on the run from the authorities while also trying to prove himself innocent along the way.
On August 29, 1967 in part two of the “The Judgement” finale, a heck of a lot of people wanted to tune in to find out just what the heck would happen. That number was 78 million, making it a rather surprising entry on the list of most-watched television finales.
It eclipsed the regular ratings for the series, meaning people who hadn’t even been watching the show decided to tune in to see how it ended. – Doug Norrie
Episode: The Finale
Date: May 14, 1998
Viewers: 76 million
The question at the time around the Seinfeld finale was how would a “show about nothing” decide to end its run. The answer frustrated some people, though in very meta-ish Seinfeld style, it also made total sense for what the sitcom was trying to do. Namely, not be like other sitcoms.
“The Finale” acted more as a series retrospective than anything else, putting the foursome of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer on trial for violating the Good Samaritan Act when they don’t help someone who was being attacked.
The main point of the finale, more than anything else, was to hammer home the idea that these characters had learned absolutely nothing along the way. That their particular brand of disinterested detachment and hyper-focused complaint-ism would carry over to prison just like it had worked in the apartment and diner.
Fans were (somewhat rightfully) frustrated with the ending but looking back it’s hard to see it having gone any other way. While it certainly is among the most-watched television finales of all-time, it didn’t exactly resonate with everyone at the time. – Doug Norrie
Episode: The Last One
Date: May 6, 2004
Viewers: 52.5 million
Rachel, Monica, Joey, Chandler, Phoebe, and Ross spent so much time sitting and talking in their respective apartments and at Central Perk that it was hard to picture them doing anything else. And while on some level, the Friends finale, “The Last One” was more of the same, it also brought to fruition storylines that had been brewing and percolating since the beginning of the series.
The Ross and Rachel will-they-won’t-they piece was finally clarified (they would) while Monica and Chandler got the family they wanted (twins) before heading off to the suburbs. The Friends finale almost felt more like a “see ya later” than a strict “goodbye,” a tone the show had cultivated over its 10 award-winning seasons.
And though it might not have felt like it at the time, the Friends finale also represented a cultural shift around television itself, beginning a slow transition away from network-dominated laugh tracks. It was almost like a network television finale more than just the ending of a television show. Cable shows were starting to take over, streaming was about a decade away and we haven’t seen numbers like this for a series since.
The Friends finale pulled in close to 53 million viewers for that last episode. Frasier had closed out a week before, Everybody Loves Raymond would wrap up a year later, and no other shows have come close (numbers-wise) ever since. This was starting to be the end of the line when it came to the most-watched television finales. – Doug Norrie
6. Magnum PI
Date: May 1, 1988
Viewers: 50 million
Though Tom Selleck had to turn down the role of Indiana Jones to continue playing the famous mustached Hawaiian private investigator, fans of Magnum P.I. wouldn’t have it any other way (and neither would fans of Harrison Ford as Indie, either). Fans also got their way when they boycotted the original series finale, where Selleck’s Magnum died at the end of Season 7, and the show was renewed for a final eighth season.
Magnum P.I. Season 8 begins with Magnum having dreamed of his death after being wounded. The series then ends on a much happier note, with the private investigator meeting his grandfather and finding out that his daughter isn’t dead. He ends up joining the Navy in order to provide a better life for his daughter.
The series ended on May 8, 1988, with the episode “Resolutions,” which saw 50.7 million people catching Magnum say goodbye. – Sckylar Gibby-Brown
7. The Cosby Show
Episode: And So We Commence
Date: April 30, 1992
Viewers: 44.4 million
Of course, the legacy of The Cosby Show has been forever marred by the sexual abuse allegations and convictions surrounding Bill Cosby in recent years. Retrospectively, it puts the series in a new light of course, tarnishing a history that would have had it as one of the all-time great sitcoms.
Running for eight seasons, the show followed the Huxtable family through a number of different sitcom-y issues and moments. Originally based on Cosby’s own standup around the relatively mundane absurdity of his family life, it eventually morphed into a show about family in general, adding characters along the way.
The last episode (one of the most-watched television finales ever) centered on Theo’s graduation with Cliff (Cosby) trying to get tickets for basically everyone in his life, or ever involved with the series. Eventually, they wrap the storylines, but not before a dance between Cliff and Clair (Phylicia Rashad) culminates the series.
In a show about the love of a family and the ties that bind them, this was a particularly sweet moment. It’s unfortunate that the present has inexorably changed the show’s legacy. – Doug Norrie
8. All in the Family
Episode: Too Good Edith
Date: April 8, 1979
Viewers: 40.2 million
Archie Bunker had issues navigating the world before things got super woke and PC, so it’s hard to imagine how the dude could have even operated in our day and age. Such was the case with All in the Family, which played up Carroll O’Connor’s character to the nth degree in terms of racist doltishness in order to shine a light on just how bad it looked even at the time. Even if the results were pretty hilarious.
Much of the gruff exterior does begin to wash away in the All in the Family finale, which had Edith cooking Archie’s St. Patrick’s Day fare for the bar, despite being told to stay off her feet because of her phlebitis. The push and pull of Edith wanting to please Archie while the latter beats himself up later for not fully understanding her condition was essentially the condition of the show.
And the finale did end sweetly with the two lying in bed together, understanding that they both needed and loved each other more than anything. – Sckylar Gibby-Brown
9. Family Ties
Episode: Alex Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Date: May 14, 1989
Viewers: 36.3 million
There isn’t any one show that completely summed up the 1980s; that would be impossible. But Family Ties sure tried to with its intersection of Baby Boomer parenting, Reagan-esque political vibes, and the sense that after the ’60s and ’70s, the hippy generation running their own households was going to have some (hilarious) bumps in the road.
The show that pushed Michael J. Fox into stardom fittingly went out with a story about him leaving and pursuing the Wall Street job he’d always dreamed of throughout the show’s eight seasons. His career and financial goals had always stood in stark contrast to his parents’ (Meredith Baxter, Michael Gross) own sensibilities, so having them conflict over this final move in the actual finale made a lot of sense.
The show kept the tension (always comedic) between and among the siblings and parents right up until the very end. But it wraps up with the understanding that though there is a generational divide, family ties are actually what bind. In this way, the Family Ties finale is somewhat timeless. – Doug Norrie
10. Home Improvement
Episode: The Long and Winding Road
Date: May 18, 1998
Viewers: 35.3 million
The 1980s and 1990s brought a new wave of television sitcoms with a stand-up comedian as the lead character. They were often accompanied by a fictional family. This was the case for Tim Allen, who starred as the patriarch of the suburban Detroit Taylor clan in Home Improvement alongside Patricia Richardson, Taran Noah Smith, Zachary Ty Bryan, and Jonathan Taylor Thomas.
Based on Allen’s stand-up comedy routine and borrowing from Bob Vila’s popular home improvement shows of the era, Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor was a television staple for eight seasons on ABC.
Home Improvement featured a plethora of comedic stunts resulting from Tim Taylor’s know-it-all attitude about doing home improvement projects. The series launched the careers of Pamela Anderson, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and Patricia Richardson, who often eclipsed Allen in popularity.
But after eight seasons, Home Improvement said goodbye to its loyal television audience with a two-part series finale entitled “The Long and Winding Road.”
By the time the finale aired in 1999, Jonathan Taylor Thomas had stepped away from his iconic role as Tim Taylor’s middle child, Randy. Thomas did not return for the finale, which featured Tim Taylor’s last filming of the fictional show-within-the-show, Tool Time.
Fans of the long-running series got some closure, as the finale also served as the setting for the wedding of Tim’s best friend and Tool Time co-host Al to his love interest Trudi. Based on the popularity of the show, it’s easy to see why this landed near the top of the most-watched television finales. – Matthew Creith
Episode: Goodnight, Seattle
Date: May 13, 2004
Viewers: 33.7 million
As one of the most successful television spin-offs in history that was spun off of one of the most successful shows in history (Cheers), it’s no wonder that Frasier appears on this list of most-watched television finales of all time. 33.7 million people tuned in to say farewell.
Frasier lasted 11 seasons, during which it won 37 Primetime Emmys—a record the sitcom held until Game of Thrones took it years later. It also won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series for five consecutive years, an impressive accomplishment that hardly any show can claim.
The show featured a phenomenal cast led by Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, and John Mahoney. Grammer played the titular character, Dr. Frasier Crane, a psychiatrist who returns to his hometown of Seattle and becomes a radio host while reconnecting with his brother and dad.
During the years that Grammer was on Cheers, the actor played the character of Frasier for 20 years. After seeing him on screen for so long, it was extra emotional for Frasier fans when Grammer said his final line, “And for that, I am eternally grateful. Goodnight, Seattle.” – Sckylar Gibby-Brown
Date: May 3, 1991
Viewers: 33 million
The primetime soap opera Dallas sparked lengthy discussions about “Who shot J.R.,” and it was one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons in television history. The series began in 1978 and revolved around Texas’s often sparring and affluent Ewing family, and it was a ratings hit for much of its 14-season run on CBS.
The 1980 episode that revealed who, in fact, shot J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) called “Who Done It” is still among the highest-rated broadcasts of all time in the United States, second only to the series finale of M*A*S*H.
The two-hour series finale of Dallas entitled “Conundrum” aired in May 1991 and mirrored the premise of the Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life. J.R. Ewing got the chance to see what life would be like if his family never existed, a trope seen in many television series of the time.
A classic Dallas cliffhanger ends the series with the audience not knowing if J.R. had shot himself with a gun. It wasn’t until the Dallas TV movie reunion five years later that fans of the original series discovered that J.R. remained alive and well.
This one landed on the most-watched television finales of all time, though the show could for sure be frustrating. – Matthew Creith
13. Everybody Loves Raymond
Episode: The Finale
Date: May 16, 2005
Viewers: 32.94 million
Continuing the trend of Tim Allen’s success with Home Improvement, stand-up comedian Ray Romano got his chance to lead his own sitcom based on his Italian-American family living in Long Island, New York.
Romano’s character of Ray Barone was a sportswriter who saw himself balancing life with his wife Debra (Patricia Heaton), young kids, and his overbearing parents who lived across the street. Ray’s brother Robert (Brad Garrett) often got mixed up in the Barone family shenanigans, which poked fun at Ray and Debra’s marriage for nine seasons.
The last episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, the aptly named “The Finale,” aired in May 2005 and was preceded by an hour-long look-back special showing clips from the entire series. Ray goes in for surgery on his adenoids which he is nervous about, and the show takes a decidedly serious turn.
The routine procedure inevitably becomes a family affair where every member of the Barone family impatiently waits in the waiting room for him to wake up. As Ray recovers from surgery at home, the whole family gathers around the table to eat breakfast, and the series goes out on a high note. – Matthew Creith
14. Star Trek: The Next Generation
Episode: All Good Things…
Date: May 23, 1994
Viewers: 31 million
Star Trek: The Next Generation had a planned cancelation even though it was in the height of its prime during its final season. Though the popularity of the show could have seen it continue for several more years, producers at Paramount decided during the fifth season to switch Star Trek from a television show into a feature film franchise. This effectively condoned The Next Generation, led by Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard, to its fateful ending.
Star Trek: TNG broke every rule in the book when it came to a season finale. Rather than wrapping up any side stories, love plots, vanquishing a big bad, or giving its audience any type of closure, the two-part finale episode focused almost exclusively on Stewart’s character.
It was a confusing episode involving time travel to the past and future and was much more character-driven and emotionally focused than it was full of action. And, though it would likely be hated by audiences if it were aired today, “All Good Things…” has become one of the most beloved finales created, with 31 million Trekkies tuning in to see how the series would end.
It is the only sci-fi show to make it on the list of most-watched television finales. – Sckylar Gibby-Brown
Episode: The Sharecroppers
Date: March 31, 1975
Viewers: 30.9 million
One of the longest-running primetime television shows of all time, Gunsmoke was a popular Western that depicted the happenings of the 19th-century town of Dodge City, Kansas. Under the leadership of lawman Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness), the citizens of Dodge City understood how to keep the peace and knew that Marshal Dillon would have their back. What initially began as a radio show, Gunsmoke premiered on television via the CBS network in 1955 and lasted 20 seasons.
On the heels of a probable 21st-season renewal of Gunsmoke, CBS made the controversial decision not to renew the series. The cast and crew were not notified ahead of time, and there was no official series finale where characters and plot lines could be wrapped up. The series finale was entitled “The Sharecroppers” and leaves much to be desired about where fans’ favorite characters like Marshal Dillon and Miss Kitty would end up.
Thankfully, audiences were pleased to have several future incarnations of Gunsmoke after CBS abruptly canceled the original series. Several television movies were made in the 1980s and 1990s before James Arness’s death in 2011 at 88 years old. Arness is notable for having played Marshal Matt Dillon for five decades, with the television series and movies taken into account. – Matthew Creith
16. Happy Days
Episode: Fonzie’s Spots
Date: Sept. 24, 1984
Viewers: 30.5 million
Though it’s been several generations since Happy Days was on the air, almost anyone on the street, no matter what age, would likely be able to sing the jaunty tune that was this ABC comedy’s theme song.
Happy Days seared itself so deeply in our culture that even 40 years after the series finale, it’s still just as recognizable as it was the day it was number one in the Neilson ratings. As one of the world’s most impactful shows, it just makes sense that 30.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the show sign off.
While Happy Days had at one point been the most popular show on the network, the introduction of the grungy ’80s was beginning to make this family comedy obsolete, forcing the series to come to an end, even though it had already jumped the shark several years earlier.
The final episode of Happy Days, “Fonzie’s Spots,” saw a wholesome and happy conclusion that reflected the squeaky-clean comedy the series had been known for. – Sckylar Gibby-Brown
Episode: The Last Newhart
Date: May 21, 1990
Viewers: 29.5 million
It’s easy to forget now, all these years later, but the Newhart finale ended up with a fair amount of controversy at the time. That’s because the show went out in meta fashion with Bob Newhart’s Dick Loudon waking up in bed from a dream, finding himself in the bedroom of Dr. Bob Hartley, who Newhart had played previously on The Bob Newhart Show in the ’70s. Essentially, we find out that the entire run of Newhart had just simply been a dream sequence and nothing more.
Though it’s celebrated now for the direction they took, essentially dovetailing the two series into one general idea, there were some fans who did think the finale was something of a cop-out. Sure, it was making fun of some other shows of the era, but this was still a massive head fake. After all, there’s really no resolution for Dick and Joanne Loudon (Mary Frann) who’ve chosen to essentially die with their inn.
But over time, the finale and especially the meta dream idea has aged well, with many praising it for the creative (and frankly pretty ballsy) approach to the whole thing. – Doug Norrie
18. Golden Girls
Episode: One Flew Out of the Cuckoo’s Nest
Date: May 9, 1992
Viewers: 27.2 million
Before Sex and the City revolutionized the friendship of four single women in the Big Apple, The Golden Girls gave a realistic interpretation of what it means to age gracefully. The Golden Girls centered around four older gals living together in Miami, Florida, but it was much more than that.
“Thank You For Being a Friend” still rings true for these sassy ladies, portrayed by veteran performers Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty.
The series is significant because all four leading ladies earned a Primetime Emmy Award for their work on The Golden Girls at some point during its seven-season run from 1985 to 1992. After a momentous career in television, star Bea Arthur left her sarcastic character Dorothy Zbornak behind in the seventh season, meaning that NBC was forced to cancel the popular sitcom. The series finale saw Dorothy marrying Blanche’s uncle Lucas and moving to Atlanta, leaving the other three women to stay in Miami.
NBC decided to spin the series off to The Golden Palace, starring the three remaining cast members and newcomer Don Cheadle. However, the spin-off proved to be a failure and was canceled after one season. – Matthew Creith
19. Night Court
Episode: Opportunity Knock Knocks
Date: May 13, 1992
Courtroom dramas have been a mainstay in network television for decades, but comedies set in a court of law are few and far between. Night Court broke that mold by showcasing the talents of actors portraying prosecutors, public defenders, judges, bailiffs, and quirky characters during the night shift of a New York City criminal courtroom.
Led by amateur magician and offbeat judge Harry T. Stone (Harry Anderson), the series introduced audiences to its ensemble cast that included John Larroquette as narcissistic prosecutor Dan Fielding, Markie Post as Harry’s love interest Christine Sullivan, Richard Moll, Marsha Warfield, and Selma Diamond as various bailiffs, and Charles Robinson as the court’s clerk Mac.
Night Court was a hit with critics and audiences alike. John Larroquette enjoyed much success to the tune of four consecutive Primetime Emmy Award wins for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.
After nine seasons on NBC, the series was canceled in 1992 amidst a two-part finale that saw Dan inexplicably going after Christine to profess his love for her in a twist ending. Night Court earned a reunion of sorts during a 30 Rock episode in 2008 entitled “The One with the Cast of Night Court,” which saw most of the cast reuniting to act out an alternate series finale for the character Kenneth Parcell.
Night Court has also received the reboot treatment recently with a revival on NBC starring Larroquette and Melissa Rauch. The new series premiered in January 2023 and sees Rauch playing the late Harry T. Stone’s daughter Abby, now a night shift judge who battles with Dan Fielding. The new show was renewed for a second season. – Matthew Creith
20. Full House
Episode: Michelle Rides Again
Date: May 23, 1995
In the era of streaming and constant content creation, we know that there’s always a chance a movie, sitcom, or franchise of the past will make its way back onto the screen in some way. That’s just the world we live in.
So while it seemed like, at the time, the Full House finale was going to be the last time we saw the Tanners and their crew, we know that it ended up not being the case.
But for the first time around, the finale centered on Michelle (Mary Kate & Ashley Olsen) hitting her head and getting amnesia. It amounts to the family calling back on familiar themes and plot points for the whole series (Michelle’s mother passed in childbirth) while also setting out future plans for the characters.
In 2016, Fuller House would act as a revival for the series, bringing back everyone *except* the aforementioned Olsen twins to their respective parts. It ran on Netflix for five seasons before concluding in 2020. Two years later, series star and comedian Bob Saget passed away tragically following a blow to the head he suffered while on tour in Florida. – Doug Norrie