Super Bowl XLVI and the biggest TV audiences in US history

Over 111 million people saw the game - but which are the other most watched American TV broadcasts?

Sunday’s Super Bowl drew the biggest US television audience of all time, with 111.3 million viewers tuning in to see the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots, watch Madonna perform her new single and witness MIA “flip off” a record number of people in one move.

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Furthermore, US network NBC estimates that 177 million viewers – more than 56 per cent of the total US population – watched at least six minutes of the game, which explains why advertisers were willing to pay a reported $3.5 million for 30 seconds of air time in the half-time break.

It’s now the third consecutive year in which the Super Bowl has broken the record – last year’s was seen by only a handful fewer viewers than this year’s – and live Super Bowls make up the three most watched programmes in American TV history.

But what are the other programmes that have grabbed the attention of the most US viewers? 

The first non-sporting event to feature in the list is the series finale of Korean War-set comedy drama M*A*S*H, watched by over 100 million when it first aired in February 1983.

More than 80 million tuned in to supersoap Dallas in November 1980 to discover who shot Larry Hagman’s ruthless oil baron JR Ewing, while the conclusion to 1977 US family drama Roots was seen by around 74 million. 

And the lure of superstar guest Michael Jackson proved enough to rack up 70 million-plus viewers for The Oprah Winfrey Show in February 1993.

Super Bowls have been breaking records for years – and they still account for more than 20 of the most watched programmes ever on US TV – but, those aside, no show has made it into the top ten since the early 1990s. It seems that in America, as in the UK, real-time audiences for drama and comedy are continuing to fall.

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Over here, even the rare spectacle of a royal wedding (William and Kate’s nuptials were watched by 26 million people last year) couldn’t touch the 30 million who witnessed Den serving Angie divorce papers as a Christmas present in EastEnders in 1986. And that wasn’t very sporting, was it?