- 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?
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
- The Cosby Show
- Full House
- The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
- The Simpsons
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.
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
|Rank||Date(s)||Television broadcast(s)||Estimated audience (billions)|
|1||27 July 2012 to 12 August 2012||London 2012 Summer Olympics||3.6|
|2||5 August 2016 to 21 August 2016||Rio 2016 Summer Olympics||3.6|
|3||14 June 2018 to 15 July 2018||Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup||3.572|
|4||8 August 2008 to 24 August 2008||Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics||3.51|
|5||19 July 1996 to 4 August 1996||Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics||3.5|
|6||15 September 2000 to 1 October 2000||Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics||3.5|
|7||13 August 2004 to 29 August 2004||Athens 2004 Summer Olympics||3.5|
|8||10 June 1998 to 12 July 1998||France 1998 FIFA World Cup||3.4|
|9||11 June 2010 to 11 July 2010||South Africa 2010 FIFA World Cup||3.2|
|10||12 June 2014 to 13 July 2014||Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup||3.2|
|11||31 May 2002 to 30 June 2002||2002 FIFA World Cup (Korea & Japan)||3|
|12||9 June 2006 to 9 July 2006||Germany 2006 FIFA World Cup||3|
|13||30 May 2019 to 14 July 2019||2019 ICC Cricket World Cup (England & Wales)||2.6|
|14||8 February 2002 to 24 February 2002||Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics||2.1|
|15||10 February 2006 to 26 February 2006||Torino 2006 Winter Olympics||2.1|
|16||12 February 2010 to 28 February 2010||Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics||2.1|
|17||7 February 2014 to 23 February 2014||Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics||2.1|
|18||9 February 2018 to 25 February 2018||PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics||2.02|
|19||15 September 1978||Muhammad Ali vs. Leon Spinks II||2|
|20||19 July 1980 to 3 August 1980||Moscow 1980 Summer Olympics||2|
|21||2 October 1980||Muhammad Ali vs. Larry Holmes: The Last Hurrah||2|
|22||28 July 1984 to 12 August 1984||Los Angeles 1984 Summer Olympics||2|
|23||17 September 1988 to 2 October 1988||Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics||2|
|24||25 July 1992 to 9 August 1992||Barcelona 1992 Summer Olympics||2|
|25||6 September 1997||Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales||2|
|26||11 September 2001||September 11 attacks||2|
|27||2 July 2005||Live 8||2|
|28||7 July 2009||Michael Jackson memorial service||2|
|29||13 July 1985||Live Aid||1.9|
|30||19 May 2018||Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle||1.9|
|31||17 July 1976 to 1 August 1976||Montreal 1976 Summer Olympics||1.5|
|32||26 June 1976||Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki||1.4|
|33||2 September 1989 to 26 February 2001||Baywatch||1.1|
|34||31 December 2010 to 31 January 2011||Sydney New Year's Eve 2010–2011||1.1|
|35||30 October 1974||Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman: The Rumble in the Jungle||1|
|36||1 October 1975||Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier III: Thrilla in Manila||1|
|37||29 July 1981||Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer||1|
|38||8 June 1990 to 8 July 1990||1990 FIFA World Cup Italia||1|
|39||21 July 1990||The Wall – Live in Berlin||1|
|40||2 August 1990 to 28 February 1991||Gulf War||1|
|41||17 June 1994 to 17 July 1994||1994 FIFA World Cup USA||1|
|42||20 January 2009||First inauguration of Barack Obama||1|
|43||19 February 2011 to 2 April 2011||2011 ICC Cricket World Cup Final: India vs. Sri Lanka||1|
|44||29 April 2011||Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton||1|
|45||6 May 2012 to 27 May 2012||Satyamev Jayate: Season 1||1|
|46||9 June 2016||Muhammad Ali memorial service||1|
|47||27 June 2016 to 7 July 2016||2016 Wimbledon Championships||1|