10 Most-Watched Television Finales of All Time17
By Chris Littler
10 Most-Watched Television Finales of All Time (and their Intro’s)
It’s a real feat for a TV show to get to the point that it has an official series finale. TV shows are kind of like baby turtles. They hatch underground, in a warm safe place, but it’s not long before they’re thrust onto the beaches of public judgment. Most are picked off immediately, swallowed whole by hungry gulls. Those that make it into the ocean have to learn how to swim immediately, les they get crushed by the waves. As the years go on, it gets harder and harder for a television show to keep viewers interested. And so on and so on. It’s a sign of a great show when it gets to give viewers a sense of closure. It’s a sign of an even greater show if more than ten million people tune in to watch that show. So only the best of television shows get to the end, and only the ones that history will remember get seen by millions of people. Since we’re getting into the winter months, you’re no doubt looking for a hundred hours of television to watch on DVD. Lucky for you, we’ve got ten shows that – based purely on numbers – are sure to please.
10. Home Improvement – 35 million viewers
Tim Allen’s sitcom about the accident-prone patriarch of the Taylor family won consistently good ratings all throughout the nineties. How could they not? It had everything a red-blooded American family could want: hot cars, hot babes, wisecracks, physical humor, a neighbor whose mouth we never saw, beards, and, most important of all, a nice little moral bow tied on top. Oh, and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Despite being a bit of an afterthought in the annals of classic television these days, and going toe-to-tip with a heavyweight like Frasier, Home Improvement carried enough weight to bring in 35 million viewers for its finale. And what a finale it was! Home Improvement’s last show was a three-part episode that followed Tim as he tried to decide if it was worth continuing his long running Tool Time TV show under new management. Hmm. Art imitating life?
9. Family Ties – 36.3 million viewers
Family Ties was created as a sort-of anti-All in The Family. Whereas All in the Family dealt with a conservative father batting heads with his hippy kids, Family Ties had two former-hippy parents trying to talk some sense into their conservative kids. Undoubtedly, the star of the show was a young Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton, the lovable, scrappy Reaganite. It only makes sense that the final double episode revolves around his departure. In it, Alex has to decide whether or not he’s going to take off for New York, where there’s a nice comfy job waiting for him on Wall Street. Everyone is excited for him, except dear old Mom. It’s a fitting conflict, between what really matters in this world. Love or success? Family or fortune? It was a finale that brought in over 35 million viewers and tied up one family’s story nicely.
8. All in the Family – 40.2 Million viewers
Norman Lear’s All in the Family changed the face of American television when it debuted in 1971. It dealt with issues like race relations, homophobia, rape, abortion, women’s lib, impotence, and the Vietnam War – and it was funny the entire time. That’s because it was all filtered through a set of amazing, believable characters who we loved. So it didn’t matter if they offended us. The final episode’s plot was a simple one: Archie asks Edith to cook corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day, unaware that her doctor told her to stay off her feet because of her phlebitis. She has to quit, he gets upset, her doctor berates him, and the two have a loving conversation at the end about how much he needs her. It’s touching, funny, and heartbreaking all at once.
7. The Cosby Show – 44.4 Million Viewers
The Cosby Show is only one of three programs that took first place in the Nielson’s ratings for at least five consecutive seasons. That might give you an idea how beloved this show was. It always straddled the line, though. The show was criticized for an unrealistic portrayal of African Americans, while simultaneously being applauded for having characters that go against mainstream stereotypes. But we don’t really want TV to prescribe to reality, do we? That was proven by the final moments of the finale. The Cosby Show’s finale is unique in that it breaks the fourth wall at the very end. All throughout the last season, there was a running joke about a doorbell with a strange ring. In the last scene between Cliff and Clair, Cliff notes that he’s fixed the doorbell. He pushes it and jazz music begins to play. Cliff grabs Clair and the two dance off the stage, wave to the adoring audience, and disappear backstage.
6. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson – 50.0 Million Viewers
A late-night talk show’s success depends on the charisma of the host and the quality of his guests. The Tonight Show, back when Johnny Carson was hosting it, was exactly this. Johnny seemed like a guy we all knew, and his guests were always top notch because of it. But when it comes down to saying goodbye, it’s all about the host. In his final performance, Johnny announced to the audience that he was one of “the lucky people in the world.” And that he wished them a “very heartfelt goodnight.” It was a classy, simple exit for a guy who knew he didn’t need to try to win us over anymore.
5. Magnum P.I. – 50.7 Million Viewers
You think The Office invented the idea of characters looking at the camera, as if to say, “Can you believe this?” No way. Magnum P.I. was doing that when Jim and Pam were in their underoos. Magnum was a Hawaii-based investigator who did work for Robin Masters, a famous recluse, in return for use of various amenities. He never met Masters, but we did know his second-in-command, Higgins. At the end of the seventh season, Magnum was killed off with the hopes that it would be the series finale. (Really? They thought that would work?) Naturally, the fans were outraged, and an eighth season was produced that brought Magnum back from the dead. The two-part finale answered whether or not Higgins was in fact Masters, and what Magnum’s real name is – but not if Magnum was going to go through with his planned wedding.
4. Friends – 52.5 Million Viewers
The Friends were never that good at being just friends. It only makes sense that they would pair off, right? They’re a bunch of upper-class New Yorkers with a seemingly infinite income, and twice as much free time. It was inevitable for them to get bored and hook up eventually. First it was Rachel and Ross, then Monica and Chandler, and then… Rachel and Ross again. But none of that matters, since there’s a baby duck trapped in the foosball table! In the series finale, the big news was Monica and Chandler adopting a pair of twins. But that was somewhat overshadowed by Ross and a Paris-bound Rachel making the magic happen almost too late. And that was further overshadowed by Joey deciding to leave for Los Angeles and start his own show which we’ll just pretend never happened. And Phoebe? Well. She remained Phoebe. It stayed true to the show, was more heartwarming than funny, and ended up being the most watched entertainment telecast in six years.
3. Seinfeld – 76.3 Million Viewers
How does one end a show about nothing? That’s the question Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld had to answer when wrapping up nine seasons and 176 episodes of their megahit NBC sitcom. The finale followed the gang as they were put on trial for violating the Good Samaritan law. In order to put them away for good, the prosecution brings back a cavalcade of people they wronged in the past. With an audience of fellow New Yorkers in the courtroom, it was the perfect way to revisit nine years of hysterical nihilism. Unfortunately, the four were convicted and sentenced to a year in prison each. Critics derided the finale for essentially rehashing old plotlines for laughs, and then having the gall to punish the characters for being exactly what we loved them for. Still, it didn’t bitter enough people to hurt DVD sales, so we guess that’s all that matters.
2. Cheers – 80.4 Million Viewers
The first scene of episode one has Sam opening the bar. It only makes sense that the last scene of the last episode is Sam closing the bar. In between, well that’s the stuff of TV history. Cheers ended up winning 26 Emmy awards out of 117 nominations. Every regular cast member was nominated at least once. The final episode – a three parter – has Diane returning to Boston after winning a prestigious award for her writing. She and Sam fire up their relationship again and decide to get married. Of course, they realize they’re rushing into things, thanks to an all-too-helpful airplane pilot. Sam returns to the bar, his one true love, and finishes up a night just like any other.
1. M*A*S*H – 105.9 Million Viewers
Will there ever be a bigger series finale than that of M*A*S*H? We don’t think so. It has a whopping 20 million more viewers than second place. One out of every two televisions in the United States were tuned to the finale when it aired. And those who had something better to do missed out on some quality television. A fire destroyed the camp, Klinger married Soon Yee, and (shocker!) the war ended. No one will ever forget those final moments, when Pierce says goodbye to Hawkeye with a message written in stones. Goodbye, Farewell and Amen indeed.
Chris Littler lives in Hollywood. He has a degree in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, one of the most prestigious writing programs in America, which he totally plans to hang on the wall when he has a Study. Chris currently covers video games at UGO.com when he’s not performing improv at iO, and is currently writing a one-hour TV pilot with his friend Wes. Like everyone else you know, he has an album available to purchase on iTunes and has lots of things to say on his blog: chrislittler[dot]com.