The 15 Highest Rated TV Shows of All Time

The Magic of Television

Many use Television to escape from their lives, unlike movies Television allows you to wonder into the lives of characters for years at time – unless a film invests in multiple sequels! Whether a show embarks upon investigating serious topics or simply provides a mindless comedic distraction there’s always something for everyone!  However, it becomes difficult over time to measure which shows were the most popular, critically acclaimed, and can stand the test of time.

Every film is a remake of a previous film, or a remake of a television series that everyone loved in the 1960s, or a remake of a television series that everyone hated in the 1960s. Or it’s a theme park ride; it will soon come to breakfast cereal mascots. – Alan Moore EDIT BY JME

The following list was compiled using several different rating measures to judge which Television shows were the highest rated of all time. This aggregate methodology is the best method to use in order to get an accurate representation of  the popularity of differing shows. Raw viewership is nearly impossible to get a complete estimation of despite the best efforts from companies like Nielsen.
However, with the thousands of television programs that have made it to the airwaves narrowing down the list to fifteen was entertaining and allowed for a learning experience to pass along to readers!
What television gets to do, and there’s a reason why ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’ works as well as it does, is that it deals with the relationships. It deals with the very small, interpersonal ways that people both love and hate each other. – Jeffrey Bell
The following is a list of the 15 highest rated television shows of all time!

15. The Walking Dead

While still in the prime of its legendary run, The Walking Dead is on a historic path. The zombie apocalyptic drama has captured the imagination of audience since it stormed the airwaves  in October 2010. From the detail that goes into the on screen locations, to the texture of the zombies, and the statements it makes about the human condition – The Walking Dead is a program that will not be forgotten! EDIT BY JME EDIT BY JME

While nearly every member of the original cast has been killed off – the show has been a smashing success. From ratings, to social media involvement, to selling of merchandise the franchise has the opportunity to spawn further spin-offs. Fear The Walking Dead is primed to be another success story, there’s really no limitations to how far The Walking Dead can carry on!

14.  Murder, She Wrote

Three time Oscar nominated actress Angela Lansbury dominated the role of Jessica Fletcher for twelve seasons on Murder, She wrote. The role landed Lansbury with four Golden Globe Awards and ten nominations total. The mystery series was a huge hit for CBS which led the network to continue the series past it’s original plan of five seasons. To this day Murder, She Wrote continues to be a success in syndication.

Murder, She Wrote has spurred numerous TV movies, video games, a book series, and even a spin off series. Not only was the program one of the most watched Television shows of all time, it continues to be a lasting success. While Murder, She Wrote may be under the radar now – it’s popularity was at one time monumental and should not be forgotten in the annuals of TV lore!

13. Friends

The sitcom starring Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer lasted ten years and was a smashing success for NBC. While Friends did not reach the number one slot until its eighth season, yet became one of the most loved and watched Television shows of all time. It would be nominated for over 60 Primetime Emmy’s and continues in Syndication!

Friends went on to launch the careers of Lisa Kudrow and even more so for Jennifer Aniston. The popularity of the Friends has spurred numerous calls for the cast to come together for either a new show or film. To the disappointment of many – that has not yet come to pass. However, there is no doubt the cultural impact of Friends is still felt today over a decade after the show ended!

12. Dancing with the Stars

The first reality based show to make the list – Dancing with the Stars hit the airwaves in 2005 and hasn’t looked back since. With it’s ever changing cast of dancers, celebrities, and hosts the shows only consistent has been the incredible ratings it’s been able to maintain. Despite slightly lower ratings in recent years, the show continues to go on strong and attract well over ten million viewers.

With a long list of celebrities to choose from the possibility for Dancing with the Stars to continue for another decade remains. It will be interesting to see whether the show will be able to rebuild their viewership to close to 16-17 million or if this is the beginning of the end. Either way the show has been a smashing success and will not be forgotten anytime soon!

11. The Ed Sullivan Show

The original sketch comedy/variety show success was The Ed Sullivan Show. It ran from 1948 – 1971 captivating CBS audiences for nearly 25 five years. Performances including Elvis, The Beatles, The Supremes, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, The Beach Boys, Jackson 5, Rolling Stones, and many more appeared live with Ed Sullivan. In the early stages of Television Ed Sullivan put on the most popular show during those early days.

Many shows of similar ilk have taken to the airwaves since the time of The Ed Sullivan Show – yet none have matched the cultural success that Ed Sullivan was able to achieve. His influence is seen more now than ever with the variety of shows that emulate his show style. However none have been able to match his 82.6 percentage share in 1956! The ridiculously high rating was thanks to The Beatles and Elvis Presley’s first appearance!

10. NCIS

Naval Criminal Investigative Service has been a ratings powerhouse since the show premiered in 2003. The show is actually a spin-off from the show JAG where the team was first introduced, and has gone on to surpass the success of JAG and nearly every show currently running. The drama is driven by a strong cast and intricate storytelling that mixes in the right amount of comedy.

Last season the show ran strong averaging over 18 million viewers per episode! While it was down from the previous two seasons, there’s no reason to believe NCIS will not continue drawing in huge audiences with their engaging cast and ever evolving story arc. The show has already spawned a spin-off and there could possibly be more in the future! It’s reasonable to assume that NCIS has at least three more seasons of viability and could possibly last well beyond that.

9. Walt Disney anthology series

The series which began in 1954 took on numerous name iterations over the years, but makes the list through the sheer length of its run. A number of different programs, teasers, and content were ran throughout the series. One of the most notable episodes focused on the principles of color in Television when the show began primarily broadcasting in color. The show would continue running in some format for well over 40 years!

Numerous stories were told on the show over the decades and it continued to draw millions of viewers. The show continued to be a resounding success even after Walt Disney’s death – his hosting segments were the main draw to the show during its early seasons. There’s a good chance that everyone reading this has seen snippets from at least a few of the episodes!

thisweekatdisney EDIT BY JME

8. All in the Family/Archie Bunker’s Place

Technically two shows, however Archie Bunker’s place literally picked up immediately where All in the Family left off. Together they ran from 1971 until 1983 and was the first series to top the Nielsen rating for 5 consecutive years (1971-1975). The show launched a number of spin offs – The Jefferson’s in particular became a successful series which lasted 11 strong seasons.

The show was the first major sitcom to be shot in front of a live audience. All in the Family also gets credit for tackling cultural issues such as prejudice, politics, and sex at a time where it was risky to do so in the United States.  To younger readers, they may not be familiar with All in the Family or Archie Bunker’s place, but it has a place in television history that will never be taken away!

7. Bonanza

Bonanza is the second most successful western of all time  and continues to run in syndication today. The show follows the weekly adventures of the Cartwright family in a fictional 1860s backdrop. Bonanza was known for diving more into character development and the relationships between characters more than the typical western of its time, which helped it stand out!

A common theme on this list, Bonanza gets a lot of credit for how the show addressed racism and presented a humanistic prospective on social issues. The show was based in the Ponderosa and gave fans lasting memories for generations. It ran from 1959-1973 and would have lasted longer if not for a poor scheduling decision by NBC. The show continues to run in syndication and spawned 3 sequel TV movies!

6. ER

The medical drama ran for 15 seasons and was able to capture 23 Primetime Emmy Awards! Originally it was expected that Chicago Hope a competing medical drama was going to crush ER in the ratings war – which clearly never happened. The show was able to average over 30 million viewers for both its 3rd and 4th seasons an enormous feet! ER was an amazing critical and commercial success!

From the 11th thru 15th seasons ER dropped out of the top 10 ratings wise and was never able to recapture the audience. However, the show still remains highly thought of and continues to be shown in syndication. It has yet to be seen if another medical drama will be capture the magic that ER had during the height of the shows run.

5. American Idol

The half singing competition half comedic endeavor, American Idol is in its final season after beginning in 2002. While the show hasn’t been successful in making a number of the show winners and finalists into financial successes, it dominated the airwaves for a number of years. It was also the prelude into a number of competition shows that used a similar format to that of American Idol.

While their track record isn’t great American Idol did help launch the careers of Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and Scotty McCreery. More-so the show made FOX millions upon millions of dollars while entertaining fans throughout the duration of the show. From drama among the judges, to wondering which contestant would win the competition, and following the careers of those on the show – American Idol has a permanent place in American Pop culture history!


4. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

The drama that looked into the lives and careers of forensic scientists quickly became one of the most popularity Television shows of all time. The show follows around a team of investigators as they attempted to solve murders. While the show was only rated #1 on the Nielsen chart during the shows 3rd season, it was a huge success through the majority of the shows run!


CSI has spawned a number of spin-offs including: CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, and CSI: Cyber to go along with numerous video game adaptations. The show has been the largest modern commercial success on television with the original wrapping up last year after 15 seasons. The CSI brand could continue on for many years in the future and will do so if the Cyber franchise becomes a success!

3. The Red Skelton Show

The Red Skelton Show aired from 1951-1971; during the same era of The Ed Sullivan Show – often defeating Sullivan in ratings! While the show did offer some musical performance, the draw of the program was Skelton’s sketch comedy bits where he would portray one of his several characters. Many acting stars also appeared on Skelton’s show to take part in one of his numerous sketches!


The show would come to an abrupt end after moving to NBC and the network reworking the program. Clearly Skelton fans did not appreciate the changes as he dropped from the #7 rated show in 1969-1970 to not even being ranked in the top 30 of shows in 1970-1971. However, The Red Skelton Show is remembered as a smashing success that entertained viewers for two decades! EDIT BY JME

2. Gunsmoke

Gunsmoke is the only western to ever be more popular than Bonanza. Considering the amount of westerns that once grazed America television; that’s quite an accomplishment. The Television series (the radio series ran from 1952-1961) ran from 1955-1975 and to this day remains the longest-running prime time drama in American history with 635 episodes. Law & Order ran for 20 years as well, but did not make the amount of episodes as the Western powerhouse.

The show was almost cancelled in 1967, but internal pressure combined with the outcry from fans kept Gunsmoke around. With a new time slot the show raised from a #34 rating in 1966-1967 to a #4 rating in 1967-1968. Even when the show was finally cancelled in 1975 it came as a surprise to fans and the cast alike. However, Gunsmoke continues to be known as one of the most successful shows of all time!

1. 60 Minutes

Beginning in 1968, 60 Minutes has accumulated more than double the viewers of Gunsmoke which came in at number two on this list! The magazine for television journalism style of 60 Minutes has allowed it to remain relevant over the years. The show has accumulated a number of Awards, been responsible for a number of spin offs, and has lasted through numerous changes in the cast of reporters.

60 Minutes has featured numerous popular segments throughout the years from Point/Counterpoint to the Andy Rooney segment. According to Nielsen ratings 60 Minutes is the most successful television program in American history. The shows continuous longevity continuous to build upon that accomplishment, no news program comes anywhere near the success of 60 Minutes and it’s doubtful one ever will!


12 thoughts on “The 15 Highest Rated TV Shows of All Time”

  1. He forgot some very important shows like M*A*S*H, and all of the Lucille Ball series . Starting with I Love Lucy in 1951 through Here’s Lucy ending in 1974, some of Lucy was on TV. Archie Bunker’s Place is just a footnote. This Walter needs to do more homework. In 1951, fewer homes had television set than in 1980’s and beyond. The measure of success should be percents of viewers rather than number of viewers.

    • On the contrary, I did do my homework and used those measures in the analysis. MASH just missed the top 15 and Archie Bunker’s Place is far more than a footnote when calculating various different measures.

      Longevity and Percentage of households viewed were weighed more heavily than number of overall viewers (If that wasn’t the case a number on the list wouldn’t have been present). There was hours of time put into compiling the list – but thanks for taking the time to comment.

    • While Seinfeld is considered one of the (if not) best Sitcoms of all time it really only spent 5 seasons as a ratings hit. Due to that it’s share ranks rather low – the first 4 seasons of the show didn’t crack the top 20 in ratings. But, that does not take away from the critical success the show was able to obtain. Unlike the vast majority of shows, the series ended while it was still a major ratings powerhouse. If it continued for 3, 4, or 5 more seasons in the top 3 of ratings it would have skyrocketed up the list and would have cracked the top 15.

      Good question.

    • *Whistles Theme Song*

      Around the mid 20s – 30 range. Would have definitely been higher up the list if it continued past it’s final season where reached #1. Was a top 10 hit for all 8 of its seasons. Definitely a good show to mention, longevity is all what held it down really.

    • Law & Order is in the 20s. Longevity played a huge role there, it only broke into the top 10 for 1 out of its 20 seasons. It remains one of my favorite series as it resulted in a number of spin-offs. While I personally love Buffy it was far from a ratings machine – at least at this level.

    • The run for Gilligan’s Island was extremely short. It’s been far more popular. It was actually cancelled after Gunsmoke was moved into its timeslot.

    • From what I can find I Love Lucy used a laugh track, cannot find anything about being filmed in front of a live audience.

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