The Most-Watched Televised Broadcasts In History

By Ellen Kershner on June 25 2020 in Entertainment

The 2012 Summer Olympics is currently the most viewed TV broadcast in history. Image source, Shutterstock by Victor Maschek
The 2012 Summer Olympics is currently the most viewed TV broadcast in history. Image source, Shutterstock by Victor Maschek
  • The very first televisions were invented in the early 1800s, and were mechanical, with rotating disks and holes set into spiral patterns.
  • With the advent of cable TV in the 2000s, the number of television shows available to viewers increased exponentially.
  • Looking at the list of the most-watched televised broadcasts in history below, the top 24 include Olympics, World Cups, and boxing matches.
  • Muhammed Ali made this list six times.

Television is a staple of modern life, and most people alive today cannot even remember a time when it did not exist. The medium has evolved so much since its invention that younger people might not even know what the original, black-and-white ones even looked like!

There have been some pretty spectacular events televised on small and big TV screens, from major sporting events to wars to Royal weddings. Global events obviously draw in more viewers, but there have been more localized ones as well. Where did it all start, though?

TV History

The very first televisions were invented in the early 1800s and were mechanical, with rotating disks and holes set into spiral patterns. These images were scanned and transmitted onto screens. By 1907, inventors A.A. Campbell-Swinton and Boris Rosing added a cathode ray tube to the mechanical scanning system, paving the way towards the first electrical television.

Years later inventor Philo Taylor Farnsworth created a new system that captured moving images with a beam of electrons that was similar to a camera. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, the first television stations started appearing. America’s very first TV program is thought to be “The Queen’s Messenger,” aired on station WRBG in 1928. The first commercial did not air until 1941 though, on NBC for a Bulova watch. It was only 10 seconds long!

The Rise of Commercial Television

Some of the earliest successful television shows included Howdy Doody (1947), The Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle (1948), or The Jack Benny Show (1950) and Amos 'n' Andy (1951). Newscasts were also popular back in TV’s early days, especially NBC's Camel News Caravan and the CBS TV News. As the years passed, other broadcast TV shows that raked in the viewers included:

  • The Andy Griffith Show
  • The Twilight Zone
  • The Brady Bunch
  • All in the Family
  • Charlie’s Angels
  • Good Times
  • Lassie
  • The Cosby Show
  • Friends
  • Full House
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
  • The Simpsons

More Options

With the advent of cable TV in the 2000s, the number of television shows available to viewers increased exponentially. Now, there were many more channels that offered dramas, comedies, sports, movies, music and more. By 2005, cable networks had doubled their audience share as compared to broadcast networks: 60.9 vs. 32.4. HBO led the pack, with popular shows like the Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Sex and the City, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

This all changed when streaming came to the forefront, in 2007 when internet speeds and computers were strong enough to manage even more entertainment options. Now, people could watch television shows on their phones, tablets, computers, gaming devices, or their streamlined television screens. The number of things to watch is staggering, and there are more viewers worldwide now than ever before. The idea of so many people across the globe watching the same broadcast simultaneously can be mind-boggling.

Sporting Events Lead the Pack

Human beings certainly do love to watch televised sporting events. Looking at the list of the most-watched televised broadcasts in history below, the top 24 (more than half of the 27 shown) include Olympics, World Cups, and boxing matches. The London 2012 Summer Olympics and Rio 2016 Summer Olympics tied for first place, each with an estimated audience of 3.6 billion. That’s pretty amazing when you consider that the world population was 7.087 billion in 2012 and 7.426 billion in 2016!

Muhammed Ali made this list six times, more than any other individual:

  • 19: Sept. 15, 1978- Muhammad Ali vs. Leon Spinks II- 2 billion
  • 21: Oct. 2, 1980- Muhammad Ali vs. Larry Holmes- 2 billion
  • 32: June 26, 1976- Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki- 1.4 billion
  • 35: Oct. 30, 1974- Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman- 1 billion
  • 36: Oct. 1, 1975- Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier III- 1 billion
  • 46: June 9, 2016- Muhammad Ali memorial service- 1 billion

Ali (real name:  Cassius Clay) is widely recognized as the greatest professional boxer of all time and won the world heavyweight championship three times. He also defended his title 19 times. Muhammad Ali was also a respected social activist and lit the Olympic flame at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.

Most-Watched Celebrity Broadcasts

The Royal family also made a good showing on the list, starting with the Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, on September 6, 1997, which ranked at #25 (2 billion). Her wedding to Prince Charles on July 29, 1981, came in at #37 (1 billion). Their sons’ marriages also made showings:

  • 30: May 19, 2018 - Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle- 1.9 billion
  • 44: April 29, 2011- Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton- 1 billion

Michael Jackson’s memorial service on July 7, 2009, came in at #28, with two billion viewers worldwide. Deemed by Guinness World Records as "The most awarded artist of all time” and "The most successful entertainer of all time," Jackson had fans from all around the world, and also made plenty of news headlines throughout his lifetime.

Historic Events

Another category of broadcasts that were widely viewed around the word are landmark historic events; some devastating, others redeeming. The September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center ranked #26, with two billion viewers, and the Gulf War broadcast from August 2, 1990, to February 28, 1991, drew in one billion. At #39 is the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, which was filmed live in Berlin, Germany, and broadcast by NBC News. Barack Obama’s first inauguration on January 20, 2009, had about one billion viewers and made #42 on the list.

The Most-Watched Televised Broadcasts In History

RankDate(s)Television broadcast(s)Estimated audience (billions)
127 July 2012 to 12 August 2012London 2012 Summer Olympics3.6
25 August 2016 to 21 August 2016Rio 2016 Summer Olympics3.6
314 June 2018 to 15 July 2018Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup3.572
48 August 2008 to 24 August 2008Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics3.51
519 July 1996 to 4 August 1996Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics3.5
615 September 2000 to 1 October 2000Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics3.5
713 August 2004 to 29 August 2004Athens 2004 Summer Olympics3.5
810 June 1998 to 12 July 1998France 1998 FIFA World Cup3.4
911 June 2010 to 11 July 2010South Africa 2010 FIFA World Cup3.2
1012 June 2014 to 13 July 2014Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup3.2
1131 May 2002 to 30 June 20022002 FIFA World Cup (Korea & Japan)3
129 June 2006 to 9 July 2006Germany 2006 FIFA World Cup3
1330 May 2019 to 14 July 20192019 ICC Cricket World Cup (England & Wales)2.6
148 February 2002 to 24 February 2002Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics2.1
1510 February 2006 to 26 February 2006Torino 2006 Winter Olympics2.1
1612 February 2010 to 28 February 2010Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics2.1
177 February 2014 to 23 February 2014Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics2.1
189 February 2018 to 25 February 2018PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics2.02
1915 September 1978Muhammad Ali vs. Leon Spinks II2
2019 July 1980 to 3 August 1980Moscow 1980 Summer Olympics2
212 October 1980Muhammad Ali vs. Larry Holmes: The Last Hurrah2
2228 July 1984 to 12 August 1984Los Angeles 1984 Summer Olympics2
2317 September 1988 to 2 October 1988Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics2
2425 July 1992 to 9 August 1992Barcelona 1992 Summer Olympics2
256 September 1997Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales2
2611 September 2001September 11 attacks2
272 July 2005Live 82
287 July 2009Michael Jackson memorial service2
2913 July 1985Live Aid1.9
3019 May 2018Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle1.9
3117 July 1976 to 1 August 1976Montreal 1976 Summer Olympics1.5
3226 June 1976Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki1.4
332 September 1989 to 26 February 2001Baywatch1.1
3431 December 2010 to 31 January 2011Sydney New Year's Eve 2010–20111.1
3530 October 1974Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman: The Rumble in the Jungle1
361 October 1975Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier III: Thrilla in Manila1
3729 July 1981Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer1
388 June 1990 to 8 July 19901990 FIFA World Cup Italia1
3921 July 1990The Wall – Live in Berlin1
402 August 1990 to 28 February 1991Gulf War1
4117 June 1994 to 17 July 19941994 FIFA World Cup USA1
4220 January 2009First inauguration of Barack Obama1
4319 February 2011 to 2 April 20112011 ICC Cricket World Cup Final: India vs. Sri Lanka1
4429 April 2011Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton1
456 May 2012 to 27 May 2012Satyamev Jayate: Season 11
469 June 2016Muhammad Ali memorial service1
4727 June 2016 to 7 July 20162016 Wimbledon Championships1

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