In the modern world of streaming, ratings don't really mean what they used to mean for most TV shows. Looking back, it's incredible how many people were tuning in for some of these famous shows' episodes with the highest ratings, so let's dig in and see what kind of numbers they drew. Warning: this story contains spoilers.
ER - "Ambush"
At its peak in the mid-1990s, ER was the most popular show on TV. It comes as no surprise that its highest-rated episode fits right in the middle of it. Episode 1 of Season 3, titled "Ambush" drew a whopping 42.71 million viewers, one of the highest-rated dramas of all time.
The West Wing - "In The Shadow of Two Gunman"
The West Wing is considered by many to be one of the best television shows of all time, especially the first four seasons. The Season 1 cliffhanger was of shots fired at President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) and 25.05 million people tuned in to the Season 2 premiere "In The Shadow Of Two Gunman" to see what happened.
Breaking Bad - "Felina"
By the time Breaking Bad came around, ratings numbers were completely different. With the dawn first of cable TV, then of streaming, TV shows didn't draw the same number of viewers network shows did at their peak. Still, the highest-rated episode was still watched by a respectable 10.28 million watchers. The episode was of course the series finale, "Felina."
Better Call Saul - "Uno"
The Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul benefited from its connection to the hit AMC show, and when it debuted in 2016, the first episode drew its highest ratings through its run, 2.57 million viewers.
Atlanta - "The Big Bang"
Looking at the numbers for Atlanta you can see how things have changed in the television landscape. The critically acclaimed show was very popular, but its numbers are dwarfed by older shows. The most-watched episode of the Donald Glover-driven show was the premiere with 1.08 million people tuning in.
The Sopranos - "For All Debts Public and Private"
This one is a bit of a surprise. The finale of The Sopranos was a huge deal and it felt like everyone in the world was tuning in. It is not, however, the highest-rated episode for the series. That distinction belongs to Episode 1 of Season 4, "For All Debts Public and Private." The show's peak reached 13.43 million people, which is really impressive for a pay channel.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - "Ch-Ch-Changes"
For the first seven seasons of its run on CBS, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation completely dominated the ratings for dramatic shows. It regularly drew 20-25 million viewers every week. It reached its apex with Episode 8 of Season 5 when 31.46 million viewers tuned in to "Ch-Ch-Changes."
The Office - "Pilot"
The Office remains one of the most beloved sitcoms ever. You might expect episodes like Pam and Jim's wedding to crush it ratings-wise, but it was actually the pilot episode, way back in 2005 that takes the title, with 11.23 million people.
Roots - Final Episode
Okay, this is fudging a little bit. Roots was really a mini-series, not a regular show, but it's impossible not to include it because the ratings were so insane. It's estimated that 100 million people watched the final episode on PBS in 1977. 36.36 million TV sets were tuned in, which was 71% of the total TV viewership in its timeslot. 1 in 4 TVs in the whole country were tuned to Roots.
Lost - "Man of Science, Man of Faith"
Lost took the TV world by storm when it debuted in 2004. By the end of Season 1, fans were glued to their sets every week. 23.47 million of those fans tuned in for the first episode of Season 2, "Man of Science, Man of Faith" to find out what was in the hatch.
Magnum, P.I. - "Resolutions"
Thomas Magnum has had an enduring legacy on TV, first with Tom Selleck in the role, and then with Jay Hernandez in the recent reboot of Magnum, P.I. In the original show's run, the ratings were generally good, though they fell off as the years went on. Still, the series finale showed just how popular the show was when, according to the fansite MagnumMania, the final episode drew 50.7 million viewers, ranking it 5th all-time for a single episode.
This Is Us - "A Father's Advice"
While network shows have generally seen ratings decline over recent years, NBC's This Is Us bucked the trend and brought back the idea of "must see TV." The tear-jerker regularly drew high ratings throughout its 6 seasons run, peaking at 12.94 fans tuning in for Season 2, Episode 1 titled "A Father's Advice".
The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air - "Just Say Yo"
Will Smith was just getting started on his acting career when The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air first aired in 1990. Two and a half seasons later, it was clear how popular he'd become when Episode 19 of Season 3, "Just Say Yo," found 30.6 million people tuning in to watch the hijinks of Will and Carlton making some bad decisions about some pills.
Mad Men - "Person to Person"
AMC's Mad Men stayed remarkably consistent through its entire seven season run. The ratings didn't fall off a cliff like so many shows do at some point. Sure, it's a more modern show, so the ratings aren't through the roof like the pre-cable era, but still 3.29 people watched as the series came to a close in Episode 14 of Season 6, called "Person to Person" when Don Draper finally seems human at the end.
Dallas - "Who Done It"
"Who shot J.R.?" was more than just a TV catchphrase. For the entire summer of 1980, people everywhere were asking the same question. J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) getting shot at the end of Season 3 of Dallas remains to this day the most famous cliffhanger in TV history. Episode 1 of Season 4 reflects just what a huge deal it was when 61% of the TVs in the country tuned in to find out who did it, which translated to 38 million people at the time. The show dragged it out of course, and the ratings peaked for Episode 4 of that season when we all learned who actually did it. An astounding 76% of all the TVs in America were tuned to CBS for the episode "Who Done It." 53 million people. Just nuts.
The Simpsons - "Bart Gets An F"
The Simpsons holds a lot of TV records, as you would expect for a show that's been on since the first George Bush was President. Surprisingly, its highest-rated episode came very early on in its run. Season 2, Episode 1 "Bart Gets An F" remains the highest rating the show's ever gotten, with 33.6 million viewers. It's a classic episode, but you'd think something like "Who Shot Mr. Burns" would have eclipsed it, but nope.
Seinfeld - "The Finale"
It will come as no surprise that Seinfeld is responsible for one of the highest-rated episodes of all time. The final episode of the show, simply called "The Finale" drew an unbelievable 76.26 million viewers. Those are numbers that we will likely never see again with the diversification of viewer habits. It is simply amazing.
The Wire - "Port in a Storm"
While The Wire is often ranked at the top, or very near the top of the greatest TV shows of all time, it had pretty modest ratings during its original run. Fans at the time were always worried that HBO was going to cancel the beloved show. The show hit its ratings peak in Season 2, with Episode 12 "Port In A Storm" which sees the demise of Frank Sobotka, with 4.48 million fans tuning in.
Succession - "With Open Eyes"
HBO has a knack for churning out hit after hit and Succession is no exception. What's different is how people consume those hits these days. With the rise of streaming, ratings on HBO don't come close to what they used to be and that's reflected in Succession's highest-rated episode, the series finale, "With Open Eyes," only garnering 800k viewers. No doubt that number was much higher on the MAX streaming platform, and it was met with widespread critical acclaim.
House - "One Day, One Room"
For seven seasons on Fox, House was among the network's most popular shows. Episodes like when Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) was shot and others garnered high ratings, but the highest ratings came when it was revealed if House would beat the drug charges against him in Season 3, Episode 4, "One Day, One Room."
M*A*S*H - "Goodbye, Farewell, Amen"
Here it is. The granddaddy of them all. The series finale of M*A*S*H, a show that famously ran for 5 times as many years as the actual Korean conflict lasted, was a television event that will never come close to being matched. The episode, titled "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" drew an insane 105 million viewers. It was at the time, and remained for years, the highest-rated TV show of all time. It wasn't until 2010 that even a Super Bowl surpassed it.
Gossip Girl - "The Dark Night"
Gossip Girl has a big place in the hearts of its fans and its highest rated episode, "The Dark Night" in Season 2 reflects that as it's usually ranked as one of the best shows of the series. The episode drew 3.73 million fans to the screen
The Walking Dead - "No Sanctuary"
AMC had another huge hit on their hands with The Walking Dead. The show, especially in its early seasons, drew enormous ratings. The show was also the master at cliffhangers, so it's not surprising that one of the biggest, with our heroes locked in a train car at the end of Season 4 would be resolved with the highest-rated show of the series, Episode 1 of Season 5, which drew 17.29 million watchers.
Like so many shows in the '80s and '90s, it was the finale of Cheers that scored huge numbers. The final episode, appropriately named "One For The Road," was watched by 80 million people in the U.S., ranking among the highest-rated shows ever. Many in Gen X can remember where they were when Sam (Ted Danson) turned the lights off in Cheers for the final time.
Game of Thrones - "The Iron Throne"
In a rare example of streaming likely helping a TV show's ratings, Game of Thrones' viewership numbers steadily climbed as the show moved along, culminating in the 13.61 million people that tuned in to HBO to watch the finale. While critics and fans had mixed reviews of the ending, you can't argue with the numbers.
Full House - "Happy Birthday, Babies"
The legacy of Full House is huge. Millions of fans still love the show enough that it was brought back decades after it ended with Fuller House. The family is still one of the most loved in TV history, so the episode "Happy Birthday, Babies" in Season 5, when Becky gives birth to Nicky and Alex, is unsurprisingly the most-watched episode, with 35.7 million people tuning in.
Friends - "The Last One"
You will not be shocked to learn that the series finale of Friends, "The Last One," is one of the most-watched shows of all time. The ratings juggernaut saved its best for last with 52.2 million fans watching as the show came to a close. It's good enough for 5th all-time, among TV finales.
Grey’s Anatomy - "It's The End Of The World"
Full disclosure here, the highest rated episode of Grey’s Anatomy had a little help, as the Season 2 ep aired directly after a Super Bowl. The result was a monster viewership of 38.1 million people. The show has always been very successful and its ratings are regularly among the highest on TV, but it's hard to imagine it ever topping that number.
Yellowstone - "One Hundred Years Is Nothing"
The newest show on this list is Paramount's Yellowstone. The Kevin Costner-led show started modestly, but over its first five seasons, it's grown into a powerhouse. The Season 5 premiere is the cherry on top of John Dutton's cake as he got sworn in as governor of Montana with 9.4 million people watching.
The Cosby Show - Series finale
Like many of its fellow sitcoms, The Cosby Show's final episode was its peak, with 44.4 million viewers. A huge show that will never be seen the same way ever again, but worth mentioning on this list.
Family Matters - "Life of the Party"
The enduring legacy of Family Matters is the character Steve Urkel, played by Jaleel White, so it's only appropriate that the highest rated episode was in Season 2 when Urkel taught everyone how to do "The Urkel" dance. 30.9 people danced along at home.
Arrow - "The Scientist"
Arrow had a long run, lasting seven seasons, and it kept its ratings remarkably consistent, at least until the last couple of seasons. The high water mark for the superhero show was 3.24 million viewers for the Season 3 episode, "The Scientist."
If you're wondering what program has the highest ratings of all time, it's not a Super Bowl, though eight Super Bowls are in the top 10. The highest-rated TV broadcast of all time was the Moon landing in 1969 with somewhere in the neighborhood of 125 million people watching on all three networks, in total. A small step for a man, a giant leap in TV viewership.