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Most Popular TV Shows of All Time, Ranked

On this list, only one No. 1 show can be No. 1

Joal Ryan
The Most Popular TV Shows of All Time, Ranked
1 of 70 NBC/CBS

The Most Popular TV Shows of All Time, Ranked

2 of 70 Warner Home Video

69. The Big Bang Theory (2019)

In its final season, this 2007-2019 CBS sitcom, starring Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco, finished as TV's highest-rated entertainment program, behind NBC's Sunday Night Football in the overall Nielsen rankings. The Big Bang Theory's "tearful" finale was watched by some 18 million viewers.

Nielsen rating: 10.6

3 of 70 Michael Yarish/CBS/Getty Images

68. The Big Bang Theory (2018)

The Big Bang Theory's top-rated 11th season put a bow on things with the long-awaited wedding of Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Amy (Mayim Bialik). Star Wars' Mark Hamill, playing his own icon self, attended the nuptials (featured in the episode, "The Bow Tie Asymmetry").

Nielsen rating: 11.1

4 of 70 Sonja Flemming/CBS/Getty Images

67. The Big Bang Theory (2017)

The Big Bang Theory's Season 10 was another ratings success. It kicked off with Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) reciting their wedding vows before friends and family. (The couple eloped in Las Vegas in Season 9.)

Nielsen rating: 11.5

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66. The Big Bang Theory (2015)

NBC's Sunday Night Football was the overall No. 1 show of the 2014-2015 season; The Big Bang Theory took honors as the top-rated entertainment show. The comedy's eighth season got off to a bumpy start when production was delayed by protracted contract negotiations involving Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco.

Nielsen rating: 11.6

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65. NCIS (2012)

NCIS was bested for the overall No. 1 spot in the 2011-2012 Nielsen rankings by Sunday Night Football, but the CBS show was no loser. The top-rated entertainment show's ninth season was distinguished by guest-star turns from Lily Tomlin and Jamie Lee Curtis -- and the occasion of its 200th episode.

Nielsen rating: 12.3

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64. NCIS (2014)

In the 2013-2014 season, Sunday Night Football was again the overall No. 1 show, but NCIS was the top entertainment show. The procedural's 11th season was marked by the departure of agent Ziva David (Cote de Pabl0), and a story arc that served as a backdoor pilot for what would become NCIS: New Orleans.

Nielsen rating: 12.6

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63. NCIS (2016)

In the 2015-2016 season, NCIS, starring Mark Harmon, saw a crossover storyline with NCIS: New Orleans, the departure of agent Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) -- and a No. 1 finish in the ratings. At 13 seasons old, the CBS procedural became the oldest scripted series on record to win the year-end ratings crown.

Nielsen rating: 12.8

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62. American Idol (2010)

Tuesday American Idol edged Wednesday American Idol for the No. 1 spot in the 2009-2010 ratings race. The show's ninth season featured Ellen DeGeneres' lone year on the judging panel -- and Simon Cowell's last year. Lee DeWyze took the show's singing crown.

Nielsen rating: 13.7

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61. NCIS (2013)

NCIS's top-rated 10th season began where its much-watched ninth season left off: with the team, including Pauley Perrette's Abby Sciuto, digging out from a terror bombing that leveled their headquarters.

In the 2010s, NCIS and The Big Bang Theory essentially took turns dominating the Nielsen ratings; each racked up four season wins as TV's top-rated entertainment show.

Nielsen rating: 13.5

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60. American Idol (2011)

Country crooner Scotty McCreery's crowning as American Idol's Season 10 champ was a turning point for the then-Fox singing competition: It marked the last time to date that the powerhouse franchise finished as TV's No. 1 show.

Idol actually finished the season as the No. 1 and No. 2 shows in the Nielsen rankings, thanks to its Wednesday and Tuesday installments, respectively.

Nielsen rating: 14.5

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59. Friends (2002)

From 1994-2004, Friends made six stars of its ensemble cast, but claimed only one ratings title. The NBC comedy made it to No. 1 in Season 8, the one with the Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Ross (David Schwimmer) pregnancy. The season also featured a guest-star appearance by Aniston's then-husband, Brad Pitt.

Nielsen rating: 15.0

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58. American Idol (2009)

The battle between Adam Lambert and Kris Allen took center stage on American Idol's top-rated eighth season. (Retro spoiler alert: Allen won.) It was another year of Idol milestones: Songwriter Kara DioGuardi joined the judges' panel -- and Paula Abdul exited the show after the season finale.

Nielsen rating: 15.1

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57. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2004)

In CSI's fourth season, the 2000-15 crime show, featuring Gary Dourdan as forensics team member Warrick Brown, held off a surging American Idol to capture the ratings crown.

In the first decade of the 21st century, CSI and American Idol topped all entertainment shows in the season ratings a combined seven times.

Nielsen rating: 15.9

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56. American Idol (2008)

This was not just any other top-rated season for American Idol. The show's seventh season, capped by a finale win for David Cook, marked the last time singers faced the show's original, three-judge panel of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. The show's Tuesday installment took honors as TV's overall No. 1. show.

Nielsen rating: 16.1

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55. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2003)

The Las Vegas-set ensemble drama scored the first of its three ratings victories in the 2002-2003 season. In the year-end rankings, CSI easily topped NBC's Friends and Fox's short-lived reality-show hit, Joe Millionaire.

Nielsen rating: 16.3

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54. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2005)

CSI, the CBS procedural starring William Peterson and Marg Helgenberger, found itself atop the 2004-2005 Nielsen rankings. In addition to the ratings title, the crime show's fifth season was distinguished with an Emmy nomination for Quentin Tarantino, who directed the episode, "Grave Danger."

Nielsen rating: 16.5

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53. American Idol (2007)

In American Idol's No. 1-rated sixth season, the confetti fell for Jordin Sparks. At age 17, Sparks was -- and still is -- the youngest Idol champ in franchise history. (Scotty McCreery, another 17-year-old Idol winner, was about two months older than Sparks at the time of his victory.) This time, the show's Wednesday installment took honors as TV's most-watched show.

Nielsen rating: 17.3

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52. Survivor: The Australian Outback (2001)

The Season 2 edition of Survivor introduced audiences to Elisabeth Hasselbeck, then known as Elisabeth Filarski -- and scored the CBS reality show's only No. 1 finish to date.

Along with NCIS and American Idol, which was revived by ABC in 2018, Survivor is the only currently airing primetime show on this list.

Nielsen rating: 17.4

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51. American Idol (2006)

Call it the Carrie Underwood effect. One year after American Idol crowned the singer who would be its biggest star, the show soared to the top of the Nielsen rankings for the first time. It went on to produce another batch of stars, including Katharine McPhee, Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, and Season 5 champ Taylor Hicks.

Per usual during its Fox run, Idol aired twice a week; its Tuesday performance episode was the overall No. 1 show.

Nielsen rating: 17.6

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50. ER (1999)

In the 1998-1999 season, ER was a show in transition: The NBC medical drama introduced Kellie Martin as med-student Lucy Knight, and prepared to say goodbye at season's end to George Clooney, who'd played Dr. Doug Ross since show's 1994 inception. One thing that didn't change: ER was TV's No. 1 show, for the third time in four years.

Nielsen rating: 17.8

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49. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (2000)

The U.S. version of the hit British game show became a ratings phenomenon during a summer 1999 run. ABC soon plugged the show into its 1999-2000 fall schedule. Airing on multiple nights, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, featuring host Regis Philbin and his monochromatic shirts and ties, finished the season with TV's No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 spots. Though the primetime version flamed out in 2002, the syndicated edition ran until 2019. In 2020, Jimmy Kimmel hosted a new primetime Millionaire.

Nielsen rating: 18.6

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48. Roseanne (1992)

In Roseanne's big-rated Season 4, D.J. (Michael Fishman) turned 10, Becky (Lecy Goranson) broke up -- and reunited -- with Mark (Glenn Quinn), Darlene (Sara Gilbert) pondered her future -- and 60 Minutes edged the comedy for the overall No. 1 spot in the year-end Nielsen rankings.

Nielsen rating: 19.9

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47. Home Improvement (1994)

While the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes was TV's overall No. 1 show of the 1993-1994 season, Home Improvement took honors as the top entertainment show. Tim Allen starred in this ABC sitcom as "Tool Time" TV host -- and dad of three -- Tim Taylor.

Nielsen rating: 20.4

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46. Seinfeld (1995)

In its sixth season, Seinfeld became TV's No. 1 show for the first time. Its long, fitful climb to the top was all but forgotten as the now-beloved show celebrated its 100th episode.

Nielsen ratings: 20.6

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45. Roseanne (1993)

While 60 Minutes was TV's overall No. 1 program in the 1992-1993 season, ABC's Roseanne topped all entertainment shows. The comedy's namesake star, billed in Season 5 as Roseanne Arnold, won a Primetime Emmy for acting to go along with her Nielsen success.

Nielsen rating: 20.7

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44. ER (1997)

While ER endured a high-profile departure in Season 3 -- the exit of original series star Sherry Stringfield -- the 1994-2009 NBC drama kept right on running with the likes of Anthony Edwards, as tireless emergency-room doctor Mark Greene.

Nielsen rating: 21.2

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43. Cheers (1991)

Like Friends, Cheers is another long-running, still-popular sitcom that seems as if it must've been TV's No. 1 show for seasons on end, but, no: The NBC comedy about Boston barkeep Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and his family of workplace friends only claimed one ratings crown -- in its ninth season. In all, Cheers ran 11 seasons, from 1982-1993.

Nielsen rating: 21.3

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42. Seinfeld (1998)

Seinfeld's storied 1989-1998 run came to an end with its top-rated Season 9. The NBC show's series finale, while critically polarizing, was undeniably successful: It was watched by more than 75 million people.

This is Seinfeld's second and final appearance on our list; owing to its late start as a ratings powerhouse, it finished atop the Nielsen rankings just twice.

Nielsen rating: 21.7

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41. ER (1996)

In its second season, ER notched its first ratings crown, its first Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, and a new high-water mark with the episode "Hell and High Water," about the storm-drain heroics of Doug Ross (George Clooney).

Though the 1990s was the decade of the stand-up-comic sitcom, à la Seinfeld, it was the medical drama, in the form of ER, that scored the most ratings crowns: three.

Nielsen rating: 22.0

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40. The Cosby Show (1990)

For five of the eight seasons that it ran on NBC from 1984-1992, The Cosby Show was TV's No. 1 hit. Its crown in Season 6 was the final one of its top-rated run.

Nielsen rating: 23.1

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39. Dallas (1983)

In Season 6, Dallas was literally on fire: The primetime soap's season-ending cliffhanger saw J.R. (Larry Hagman) overcome as fire tore through his family's Southfork estate. The show reigned as TV's top entertainment show, but was edged by 60 Minutes for the overall No. 1 spot.

Nielsen rating: 24.6

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38. Dynasty (1985)

While The Cosby Show owned the second half of the 1980s, the primetime soap ruled the first half. In the 1984-1985 season, the crown was worn in high fashion by the Joan Collins-era Dynasty. The ABC drama's fifth season scored buzz -- and viewers -- for a guest-starring run by Rock Hudson, and a bullet-riddled cliffhanger, known as the Moldavian massacre.

Nielsen rating: 25.0

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37. The Cosby Show (1989)

In The Cosby Show's top-rated Season 5, Lisa Bonet returned to the cast full-time after her character, Denise Huxtable, dropped out of Hillman College -- and exited the Cosby spin-off, A Different World.

Nielsen rating: 25.6

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36. Dallas (1984)

With Larry Hagman's dastardly oil exec J.R. Ewing driving much of the action, the original Dallas ran 14 seasons on CBS, from 1978-1991. Four of its seasons were spent in the Nielsen penthouse as TV's most-watched entertainment series. Dallas is tied with The Cosby Show for the most wins in the 1980s.

Nielsen rating: 25.7

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34 (tie). Three's Company (1980)

Just as you can't tell the history of primetime without "jiggle TV," you can't tell the story of the 1979-1980 TV season without Three's Company, the ABC sitcom that jiggled like few others -- and scored more viewers than anything besides 60 Minutes. The show originally starred John Ritter, Joyce DeWitt, and Suzanne Somers.

Nielsen rating: 26.3

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34 (tie). Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (1970)

From 1968-1973, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In mined the culture -- and bikinis -- of the flower-child generation for a broadly popular NBC sketch-comedy show that introduced audiences to Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin. And, as Saturday Night Live would do some years later, it spawned catchphrase ("Sock it to me") after catchphrase ("Veeerry interesting"). It spent two years as TV's No. 1 show.

Nielsen rating: 26.3

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33. The Andy Griffith Show (1968)

In its eighth and final season, CBS' The Andy Griffith Show. starring Ron Howard, Frances Bavier and title star Andy Griffith, went out on top as TV's No. 1 show. It was the comedy's first and only season ratings win.

Nielsen rating: 27.6

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32. The Cosby Show (1988)

In Season 4, The Cosby Show marked its third-straight ratings win -- and Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) scored a sweet, prom-night limo ride courtesy his friend Smitty, played by a teenage Adam Sandler.

Nielsen rating: 27.8

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31. Dallas (1982)

In Dallas' fifth season, featuring Patrick Duffy and Victoria Principal as the devoted Bobby and Pam Ewing, the drama was TV's undisputed ratings champ. Along the way, the soap proved that the couple that wears Western-styled plaid shirts together stays together.

Nielsen rating: 28.4

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30. Marcus Welby, M.D. (1971)

Marcus Welby, M.D., starring Robert Young (Father Knows Best) as a kindly family doctor in Santa Monica, Calif., ran for seven seasons on ABC from 1969-1976. It emerged as TV's No. 1 show in its second season. Marcus Welby and ER are the only two medical dramas in this top-rated rundown.

Nielsen rating: 29.6

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29. Bonanza (1967)

As the 2000s were about reality-competition shows, the 1960s were about Westerns. Bonanza, starring Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker and Pernell Roberts, ruled as TV's No. 1 show for three straight seasons.

Nielsen rating: 29.1

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28. All in the Family (1976)

Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) was the original king of Queens. In its sixth season, the New York City-set All in the Family won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, and notched its fifth straight year as TV's No. 1 show. Overall, All in the Family ran for nine seasons on CBS, from 1971-1979.

Nielsen rating: 30.1

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27. All in the Family (1975)

In its top-rated fifth season, All in the Family tackled its latest hot-button issue: inflation.

Nielsen rating: 30.2

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26. Laverne & Shirley (1979)

In the history of TV, only two shows led by a woman character or characters have finished a season as TV's overall ratings champ -- and one of those shows is Laverne & Shirley. The ABC retro sitcom (and Happy Days spin-off) starred Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams.

(During its heyday, the Roseanne Barr-led Roseanne, as noted, was TV's top-rated entertainment show, but not the overall No. 1 program.)

Nielsen rating: 30.5

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25. All in the Family (1974)

Future filmmaker Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally...) won a Primetime Emmy for his portrayal of Archie Bunker's All in the Family foil, Michael "Meathead" Stivic, while Sally Struthers claimed two statuettes during her run as Gloria, Archie's daughter and Mike's wife.

Nielsen rating: 31.2

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24. Happy Days (1974)

A year before Fonzie (Henry Winkler) literally jumped the shark in Season 5's "Hollywood, Part 3," ABC's Happy Days ascended to No. 1 for its first and only season-ratings win. The nostalgia-minded comedy's run at the top was marked by the high-school graduation of Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard), and Fonzie's star-crossed love with Pinky Tuscadero (Roz Kelly).

Nielsen rating: 31.5

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23. Laverne & Shirley (1978)

Laverne & Shirley first climbed to No. 1 in Season 3, wherein the Milwaukee beer-factory coworkers met teen-idol Fabian and rang in the year 1960.

Nielsen rating: 31.6

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21 (tie). Bonanza (1966)

Michael Landon, who played the youngest member of Bonanza's Cartwright clan, "Little Joe" Cartwright, went on to produce and star in Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.

Nielsen rating: 31.8

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21 (tie). Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (1969)

Comics Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were the namesakes -- and hosts -- of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. In 1969, their second-season show claimed the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Variety or Musical Series -- and the TV-ratings crown.

Nielsen rating: 31.8

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20. Wagon Train (1962)

Wagon Train is one of three Westerns to top the Nielsen ratings in the 1960s. The drama about a westward journey from Missouri to California aired from 1957-1962 on NBC, and from 1962-1965 on ABC. It lassoed its lone Nielsen crown in its fifth season, one year after its star, Ward Bond, died, and John McIntire (pictured) was tapped to replace him.

Nielsen rating: 32.1

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19. All in the Family (1973)

The quintessential series of the politically charged Watergate years and post-Vietnam era, All in the Family was as acclaimed as it was popular. From 1971-1973, the show pulled off three straight Primetime Emmy wins for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Nielsen rating: 33.3

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18. The Cosby Show (1986)

In the 1985-1986 season, The Cosby Show became the first -- and still only -- TV series with a majority non-white cast to emerge as the medium's No. 1 show. The series also paved the way for Seinfeld, Roseanne, Home Improvement and other top-rated 1990s sitcoms that were built around stand-up comedy stars.

Nielsen rating: 33.7

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17. All in the Family (1972)

Following a middling ratings performance in its freshman year, All in the Family zoomed to the top of the rankings in its sophomore season, thanks to electric episodes such as "Sammy's Visit," in which entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., playing himself, planted a kiss on the bigoted Archie Bunker.

Nielsen rating: 34.0

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16. Dallas (1981)

Dallas' top-rated Season 4 was one for the record books: An estimated 83 million people tuned in the soap on Nov. 15, 1980, to watch it reveal the identity of the character who shot J.R. Ewing in the previous season's finale. (Retro spoiler alert: The trigger was pulled by Kristin Shepard, J.R.'s sassy sister-in-law, played by Mary Crosby.)

Nielsen rating: 34.5

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15. The Cosby Show (1987)

In The Cosby Show's top-rated Season 3, Cliff Huxtable and family lip-synced their way through James Brown's "I Got the Feelin'" -- their way of celebrating Cliff's parents 50th-wedding anniversary (in the episode, "Golden Anniversary").

This Cosby Show Nielsen performance marks the best showing of any post-1985, post-cable show on our list.

Nielsen rating: 34.9

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14. The Beverly Hillbillies (1963)

In its first season, The Beverly Hillbillies, the 1962-1971 sitcom about the antics of West Coast transplants, the Clampetts, rode straight to the top of the Nielsen ratings. The Emmy-nominated Irene Ryan starred as Granny.

Nielsen rating: 36.0

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13. Bonanza (1965)

Set on the Ponderosa, the fictional ranch home of the Cartwrights, Bonanza ran for 14 seasons on NBC, from 1959-1973.

Nielsen rating: 36.3

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12. Gunsmoke (1961)

No TV Western has dominated or endured more than Gunsmoke, which produced 635 episodes through 20 seasons from 1955-1975 on CBS. In the 1960-1961 season, the show, starring James Arness as U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon, scored its fourth straight ratings crown.

Nielsen rating: 37.3

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11. The Beverly Hillbillies (1964)

In its second season, The Beverly Hillbillies was bigger than ever. The critically unloved show fell out of the Top 10 the following year, and never fully regained its ratings magic for the rest of its run. Nonetheless, it scores points as the only sitcom of the 1960s to win a Nielsen race, much less two.

Nielsen rating: 39.1

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10. Gunsmoke (1959)

Gunsmoke star James Arness is seen at the Primetime Emmys, circa the late 1950s. During the show's run, the Western won five Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series (or, as the category was known in the early days, Best Dramatic Series with Continuing Characters).

Nielsen rating: 39.6

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9. Gunsmoke (1960)

In Season 5, Gunsmoke, starring Amanda Blake as Dodge City's Kitty Russell, aka Miss Kitty, cleaned up with another ratings win.

Nielsen rating: 40.3

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8. Gunsmoke (1958)

Gunsmoke scored its first ratings win in Season 3. More than a decade later, in a demonstration of its remarkable longevity, it nearly notched a fifth-career crown, when, following a Nielsen lull, it climbed to No. 2 in the 1969-1970 ratings.

Nielsen rating: 43.1

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7. I Love Lucy (1957)

Through six seasons, from 1951-1957, I Love Lucy, starring Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz, won four Primetime Emmys to go with its four season ratings wins.

Its 1956-1957 season was its final season; befitting a classic, Lucy went out on top.

Nielsen rating: 43.7

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6. The $64,000 Question (1956)

This comet of a show -- only the second game show on our list -- soared to the top of the Nielsen ratings just months after its 1955 premiere. But as quick as it rose, it fell: The $64,000 Question, hosted by Hal March, withered in the wake of the Twenty-One quiz-show scandal (as depicted in the movie, Quiz Show); it was canceled in 1958.

Nielsen rating: 47.5

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5. I Love Lucy (1955)

In I Love Lucy's top-rated Season 4, the Ricardos (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) and the Mertzes (Vivian Vance and William Frawley) head to California, for a season's worth of Hollywood antics.

Nielsen rating: 49.3

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4. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (1952)

In a way, primetime personality Arthur Godfrey was the host of the original American Idol: CBS' Talent Scouts was a ratings-dominant show that spotlighted up-and-coming singers (though it wasn't specifically a singing competition). Hollywood legend has it that Elvis Presley auditioned for -- and got rejected by -- the show.

Nielsen rating: 53.8

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3. I Love Lucy (1954)

During I Love Lucy's No. 1-rated Season 3, Vivian Vance won a Primetime Emmy for her work as Lucy Ricardo's steadfast friend, Ethel Mertz.

Nielsen rating: 58.8

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2. Texaco Star Theater (1951)

If comic Milton Berle was the original TV star, then his Texaco Star Theater variety show was the original TV hit -- it claimed the very first Nielsen crown, in the very first Nielsen-tracked season.

Nielsen rating: 61.6

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1. I Love Lucy (1953)

It had to be I Love Lucy.

The No. 1 show on our list of the No. 1-rated entertainment shows of all time is a ground-breaker that popularized the three-camera sitcom, and a timeless favorite that continues to generate laughs nearly 70 years after its premiere.

The honor of TV's best-ever Nielsen performance goes to I Love Lucy's Season 2 -- the one with the chocolate factory, and the birth of Little Ricky.

Nielsen rating: 67.3