The Most Watched TV Shows in the World

October 7, 2020 • Zachary Amos


Television shows come and go throughout the years. Some last longer — a lot longer — than others, but eventually, another show takes its place. In the never-ending competition for the viewers’ attention, some shows succeed and become global phenomena. However, it can get a little complicated when discussing the most watched TV shows in the world. Nielsen ratings, syndication, home videos and the streaming era all influence popularity.

Of All Time

The most popular television programs, globally, of all time, may not be what you expect. Often, sports programs like FIFA or the NFL’s Super Bowl will break records in terms of viewership. With hundreds of millions of views, sports programs often reign.

In terms of the most watched program of all time, NASA takes the cake. It was July 16, 1969, that 650 million people across the world tuned into the Apollo 11 mission.

However, those aren’t TV shows in the traditional sense. Here are some shows that have reached global status:

“NCIS” started in 2003 and has been going strong ever since. Currently, with streaming and DVR, the show gets around 15 million viewers — an impressive feat for shows today. Some consider it to have been the most popular show in the world in 2016 when it reached 47 million viewers.

The 1972 show, “M*A*S*H,” drew in 106 million viewers in its final episode, making it the most watched series finale of all time. Even with streaming, these numbers are hard to beat in today’s digital climate.

Other shows that are strong contenders include:

  • “The Sopranos”
  • “The Twilight Zone”
  • “Baywatch”
  • “Lost”
  • “I Love Lucy”
  • “Star Trek: The Original Series”
  • “Saturday Night Live”
  • “Cheers”
  • “Seinfeld”
  • “The Oprah Winfrey Show”
  • “Friends”
  • “American Idol”
  • “Married with Children”
  • “Desperate Housewives”

You’ll notice that many of these shows started before the streaming and subscription era came about, which is why it’s important to break the shows down into different sections. What were the most popular and most watched TV shows in the world a decade ago have different viewership categorizations than the ones of today.

Currently on Air

Some of the most popular shows of all time are still on today — like “NCIS,” “American Idol” and “Saturday Night Live.” However, there are other shows that are global hits, too, and still on the air.

Specifically, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “This Is Us” have taken on lives of their own. “Grey’s Anatomy” recently overtook “ER” to become the longest-running primetime medical drama on TV. It also has widespread global reach.

“This Is Us” reaches around 15 million viewers overall, which mirrors the popularity of “NCIS.” These shows are likely to stick around for many more years to come. Other most-watched shows on air include:

  • “Chicago Fire”
  • “FBI”
  • “Blue Bloods”
  • “The Walking Dead”

The Streaming Era

In today’s era, streaming is everything. Whether it’s music, movies or TV, subscription-based viewing and listening has taken over. Watching on live TV is becoming less of the norm. Instead, watching on website livestreams or watching the next day is on the rise.

“Game of Thrones” is an example of a program that adjusted. While the show aired, HBO provided livestreaming from any device to watch. Viewers didn’t have to tune into a TV to have their views count. This show had a growing cultural impact across the world with the help of its adaptation to subscription-based viewing.

Netflix shows, too, are prime examples of how streaming shows are becoming increasingly popular. “Stranger Things” broke record for online viewing, with Netflix reporting that 64 million households had viewed season three within the first month of its debut.

Online viewership gets complicated because it calls into question how subscription streamers count views. Netflix, for instance, counts a view as at least a 70% completion of a program — whether it’s an episode or movie.

Netflix shows then count as some of the most watched TV shows in the world. They include:

  • “The Umbrella Academy”
  • “La casa de papel” or “Money Heist”
  • “You”
  • “Planet Earth”

Complicating Factors

These are many of the most watch TV shows in the world — past, present and streaming. The numbers usually come from Nielsen ratings, however, the streaming world complicates that sourcing.

As the TV viewing world shifts to subscriptions, like HBO or Amazon, the idea of popular TV shows shifts. These shows reach different corners of the world and impact people in different ways. Whether they’re from the past or present, TV shows come and go — but the viewership stays.

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