Co.Design

Exclusive Chart: The Most Watched TV Shows of All Time

America’s Super Bowl is positively peewee compared to these guys.

When it comes to TV in America, the Super Bowl stands supreme. NBA Finals, the World Series, Nascar, Oscars—none of them come close to last year’s pigskin bonanza, which drew in 108.7 million U.S. viewers and 164 million viewers worldwide. And initial reports suggest this year's broadcast may set a new record for the program, as Nielsen pegged the U.S. audience at an all-time high of 111.5 million viewers (worldwide figures haven't been released yet).

But in the long gaze of history, our Super Bowl Sunday looks like a pickup game. When it comes to gathering the world around the tube for a singular TV moment, the spectacle has to be truly international, like the Olympics or World Cup. That, or cater to China’s 1.35 billion citizens.

Here, we've plotted some of the most-watched television events in this Co.Design original infographic.

Totals from some events, such as Princess Diana’s funeral or "Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii," the first-ever global satellite broadcast, are difficult to prove and have been omitted. We measure viewership as a program’s “reach,” which indicates how many people tuned in at some point during the broadcast. If you can verify that we’ve missed a TV milestone, sound off with a link in the comments and we’ll add it to the graphic!

*A previous version of this story mislabeled Super Bowl XLVII as Super Bowl XLVI.

[Image: 2008 Summer Olympics Beijing via Flickr user U.S. Army]

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6 Comments

  • I think there should be some consideration given to the number of handsets people owned in that year. So rather than having Audience Reach (in millions) as a metric, % Reach (number of viewers/number of TV owners * 100) could have been better. What say?

  • Right, so you'd have a sense of what percentage of the world's TV owners experienced that moment together. Rate vs. absolute figures are common design decision with charts such as this. I think with that metric you'd want to present the data as a scatterplot to give readers a sense of how the extra dimension affected the rankings. Another measurement would be to compare the viewership with the world's population at the time, to indicate how TV has brought us together in recent decades for history's flashpoints. Good idea!

  • This only makes the MAS*H finale all the more remarkable. That's 125 million people in a single country of broadcast-only access — out of fewer than 230 million possible viewers.

    And the moon landing's worldwide share of audience must have been about 100%...