Most Watched TV Series Finales of All Time
Did Ross end up with Rachel? Was Bobby Ewing really dead? Would Jerry, Elaine, and George ever get their name called at the Chinese restaurant? And why were Will and Grace not speaking all of those years?
These were the burning questions TV viewers needed to know when they tuned in to their favorite TV series finales during the heyday of broadcast television. Answering those questions at the end of a TV show can be difficult. It’s almost impossible to make every fan happy, so the show’s writers have to decide whether its best to tie up every loose end or leave things more open to interpretation. Either option can make for great TV; at the end of the day, most viewers want a sense of closure for the characters they’ve come to love over the years.
However, in the days before DVR and streaming, it was impossible to know what how a TV show would end like unless you were sitting in front of your screen as it ended. If fans wanted to get closure for their favorite characters, they had to be there when it happened. To see which series had the biggest turnout, Stacker took a look back at the top 50 most-watched TV series finales, ranked by Nielsen Ratings. Each series finale listed includes the air date along with the number of viewers who tuned in (viewership), the percent of households using television who were tuned to a specific program, station or network in a specific area at a specific time (share), and the rating which represents tuning or viewing as a percent of the entire population (rating).
Did you catch these critically acclaimed series when they originally aired, or did you watch them on Netflix? Read on to find out where your favorite pre-binge-era shows’ endings landed on this list.
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#50: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
Viewership: 14.6 million
Date: February 06, 2014
After 22 years on the air, comedian Jay Leno signed off from “The Tonight Show” in 2014 with a star-studded finale that featured President Obama and a return visit from his very first guest, Billy Crystal. It was the second time Leno had said goodbye after Conan O’Brien’s brief stint in 2009. Much of the show’s celebrity guests and festivities were kept secret from Leno until the show aired. The show was nominated for an Emmy Award in the Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series category ten times between 1993 and 2005, winning the award in 1995. His predecessor Johnny Carson’s famed finale on “The Tonight Show” in 1992 appears on our list at No. 6.
Viewership: 14.7 million
Date: May 11, 1989
“Dynasty” was the iconic guilty pleasure primetime soap opera of the 1980s that revolved around the wealthy Carrington family. Oil baron Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) had fallen in love with his secretary Krystle (Linda Evans), causing all kinds of great TV drama when Blake’s infamous ex-wife, Alexis (Joan Collins), shows up. The opulent soap opera was in the Nielsen top ten for most of its nine year run, reaching number one in 1984, but ultimately sliding in popularity by the time it was canceled in 1989. “Dynasty” was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best TV Drama series every year from 1981 to 1986, winning in 1984. The series was also nominated for 24 Emmy Awards, winning for Outstanding Costumes for a Series in 1984, and inspired a reboot on the CW in 2017.
#48: Kate & Allie
Viewership: 14.9 million
Date: May 22, 1989
In the hit 1980s sitcom “Kate & Allie,” best friends and fellow divorcees Kate McArdle (Susan Saint James) and Allie Lowell (Jane Curtin) move in together in New York City. Initially greenlit for six episodes as a mid-season replacement in 1985, the female-driven series was quickly picked up for five more seasons, earning an Emmy Award for Curtin and a nomination for Saint James, along with Golden Globes nominations for the series. The finale, which aired in May 1989, brought in nearly 15 million viewers.
#47: In the Heat of the Night
Viewership: 15.0 million
Date: May 16, 1995
TV legend Carroll O’Connor starred in the tense dramatic TV series “In the Heat of the Night” (based on the Oscar-winning 1967 film and 1965 novel of the same name) as Chief Bill Gillespie, a small town police chief in the American South, who later becomes sheriff of the county. As he tries to solve crimes and catch criminals with detective Virgil Tibbs (Howard Rollins), Gillespie must navigate tricky small-town politics where racial tensions run high. O’Connor, reportedly disappointed with the writing, would often re-write his own scripts to the chagrin of the production staff. The series ran from 1988 to 1995, sometimes competing with “Golden Girls” and “Major Dad” in ratings.
#46: Married... with Children
Viewership: 15.2 million
Date: May 05, 1997
The classic, dysfunctional family sitcom “Married...with Children” premiered on the then-newly launched Fox network in 1987 to rave reviews. Starring Ed O’Neill as the hapless family patriarch, Al Bundy, Katey Sagal as gold-digger Peggy, a young Christina Applegate as dim-witted Kelly, and David Faustino as intelligent, but awkward Bud, the series was originally titled “Not the Cosbys.” After a viewer-led advertiser boycott in 1989, the series actually picked up in ratings as more people became curious about the show’s controversial storylines. O’Neill, who now stars on the hit show “Modern Family,” has been said to have made telephone calls to fans in character during the show’s heyday, but only on the condition that they call him collect, in line with Al Bundy’s cheapskate nature.
#45: Perfect Strangers
Viewership: 15.8 million
Date: August 06, 1993
Created by the producers of “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy,” buddy comedy “Perfect Strangers” starred Bronson Pinchot as naive Balki Bartokomous, a sheepherder from Greece who travels to the U.S. to find his cousin, the high-strung Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker). The pair end up sharing Larry’s apartment despite their differences, often getting into situations only the well-meaning, but aloof Balki can get them out of. The series ran from 1986 to 1993, anchoring the newly-created ABC “TGIF” lineup and inspiring the popular spin-off “Family Matters.”
#44: Miami Vice
Viewership: 16.1 million
Date: June 28, 1989
Noted for its colorful men’s fashion and innovative use of popular music at the time -- including jazzy, synthesizer tunes from composer Jan Hammer -- the groundbreaking police drama “Miami Vice” focused on the Miami Police Department’s vice squad as it worked to end prostitution and drug trafficking. The series ran for five seasons from 1984 to 1990, greatly influencing popular culture, music, and fashion. The partnership of Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs led to Outstanding Actor awards for both stars of the show, Don Johnson and Edward James Olmos, and inspired a film of the same name starring Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in 2006.
#43: NYPD Blue
Viewership: 16.1 million
Date: March 01, 2005
The critically-acclaimed, gritty police procedural drama “NYPD Blue” was nominated for an Emmy Award 84 times, and won 20. Debuting in 1993, the series aired its final episode in March 2005, making it the longest-running primetime one-hour drama series on ABC until “Grey’s Anatomy” surpassed it in 2016. The original ensemble cast included David Caruso, Dennis Franz, and James McDaniel, who played detectives at the 15th Police Precinct in Manhattan. Before “NYPD Blue,” some of the stars had an affiliation with co-creator Steven Bochco from his previous highly acclaimed series, “Hill Street Blues.”
Viewership: 16.4 million
Date: April 02, 2009
The longest-running primetime medical drama in television history, “ER,” aired from 1994 until 2009. Created by novelist and medical doctor Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park”), the series followed the lives of the doctors and staff at the fictional County General Hospital in Chicago. Crichton based the screenplay -- written in 1974 but put on hold while collaborating with Steven Spielberg on “Jurassic Park” -- on his own experiences as a resident physician in a busy hospital emergency room. The series was nominated for 375 industry awards and won 116, including a Peabody Award and several Emmy Awards. The series also launched or amplified the TV and film careers of stars such as: Noah Wyle, George Clooney, Julianna Margulies, Parminder Nagra, Mekhi Phifer, and Maura Tierney, among others.
#41: The Oprah Winfrey Show
Viewership: 16.4 million
Date: May 25, 2011
After 25 years on the air, the history-making “The Oprah Winfrey Show” signed off with a farewell by its namesake to her audience in 150 countries: "You and this show have been the greatest love of my life.” The two-part finale by the media icon featured appearances by Aretha Franklin, Tom Cruise, Stevie Wonder, Beyonce, Tom Hanks, and Madonna, bringing in the highest ratings for the program in 17 years. “Oprah” remains the highest-rated daytime talk show in American television history, leading the way for spin-offs “Dr. Phil” and “Dr. Oz.”2018 All rights reserved.