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Most Popular TV Show the Year You Were Born

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Looking back, America’s viewing habits haven’t changed much over the years — at least as far as network TV is concerned. Long before “American Idol” there was “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.” “I Love Lucy” set the bar for sitcoms until “All in the Family” reshaped the genre. And Westerns once dominated the TV landscape that later became crowded with crime and medical dramas. Starting with 1950 — when the Nielsen ratings began — here are the top shows for each season based on data compiled in “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.” See where your favorites finished.


Related: 17 Beloved TV Shows You Can Still Watch

Milton Berle
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1950 | Texaco Star Theatre (NBC)

The comedy-variety show — originally broadcast on radio from 1938 to 1949 — became the biggest show on TV when “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle, became the permanent host in its second season (1949). Nielsen’s first ratings found that more than 60 percent of all homes with TV sets were watching the show. At the time, NBC was the top network with seven of the top 10 shows on TV.


Related: Best TV Shows Starring Boomers

Arthur Godfrey
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1951 | Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (CBS)

Another show with its roots in radio, “Talent Scouts” featured live performances with the studio audience picking a winner via an applause meter. It was one of two shows hosted by Arthur Godfrey at the time. Variety shows dominated the landscape with “Texaco Star Theatre,” “The Red Skelton Show,” “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends,” “Your Show of Shows,” and “The Jack Benny Show” all in the top 10.


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I Love Lucy
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1952 | I Love Lucy (CBS)

Already a hit after its first season in 1951, the show featuring Lucille Ball as the zany wife of a popular big band leader (real-life husband Desi Arnaz) parked itself atop the ratings where it would stay for most of its six-year run. It probably didn’t hurt that the first episode of this season included the classic scene of Lucy and Ethel (Vivian Vance) working in a candy factory.

I Love Lucy
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1953 | I Love Lucy (CBS)

Everyone still loved Lucy and much of the third year of the series centered around the Ricardos’ transition from newlyweds to parents. Crime classic “Dragnet” (NBC) finished close behind.

I Love Lucy
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1954 | I Love Lucy (CBS)

The Ricardos and Mertzes famously take a cross-country trip to Hollywood where Ricky is being courted by a studio. “The Jackie Gleason Show” (CBS) was second in the ratings and “Dragnet” (NBC) was third.

The $64,000 Question
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1955 | The $64,000 Question (CBS)

A summer replacement in 1955, the show “marked the beginning of the big-money quiz shows,” notes the Museum of Broadcast Communications. It featured “common man” contestants with some expertise in some area — many of whom became instant celebrities — trying to answer 11 questions to win the top prize. “I Love Lucy” (CBS) was second by less than one rating point and “The Ed Sullivan Show” (CBS) was third.

I Love Lucy
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1956 | I Love Lucy (CBS)

After 180 episodes and four Emmy awards, the show went out on top and later became a staple in reruns. The characters would return for several specials and Lucille Ball would later return to CBS in “The Lucy Show” (1962-68) and “Here’s Lucy” (1968-74), before “Life With Lucy” (1986) on ABC. CBS dominated the 1956-57 ratings race with nine of the top 10 shows that season.

Gunsmoke
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1957 | Gunsmoke (CBS)

By this point, the popularity of variety shows was giving way to a slew of TV Westerns. In its third season, the adventures of Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) and the citizens of Dodge City, Kansas, topped them all. “The Danny Thomas Show” (CBS) was a distant second.

Gunsmoke
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1958 | Gunsmoke (CBS)

Seven of the top 10 shows on TV in this season were Westerns including “Wagon Train” (NBC), “Have Gun Will Travel” (CBS), “The Rifleman” (ABC), “Maverick” (ABC), “Tales of Wells Fargo” (NBC), and “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” (ABC).

Gunsmoke
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1959 | Gunsmoke (CBS)

Critics refer to the series as an “adult” Western, as opposed to earlier, serialized Westerns written for younger audiences. While it wasn’t family unfriendly, storylines were more complex than what was usually intended for kid audiences.

Gunsmoke
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1960 | Gunsmoke (CBS)

The popular Western’s sixth season capped a four-year run at the top. But it wasn’t quite ready to ride into the sunset, eventually logging 20 seasons and an amazing 635 episodes. When it finally left the air in 1975, it was the last Western on network TV at the time.

Wagon Train
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1961 | Wagon Train (NBC)

After years in Marshal Matt Dillon’s shadow, “Wagon Train” finally had its day in the sun. The plots in this hour-long show usually revolved around people the travelers met on their way to California. “Bonanza” (NBC) and “Gunsmoke” (CBS) were close behind in the ratings.

The Beverly Hillbillies
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1962 | The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS)

CBS’s fish-out-of-water sitcom with Buddy Ebsen as a poor mountaineer who accidentally finds oil on his property and comes into a fortune was a huge hit, pacing the network’s string of eight shows in the top 10 that year.

The Beverly Hillbillies
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1963 | The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS)

It was another big season for the Clampett clan, which would continue to be popular through its nine-year run of 216 episodes. The show also helped extend CBS’s ratings domination with 14 of the top 15 shows that year including “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Petticoat Junction,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Lucy Show,” “Candid Camera,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and “My Favorite Martian.”

Bonanza
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1964 | Bonanza (NBC)

By their sixth season of working the Ponderosa, the Cartwright clan finally rose to the top of the ratings as the Western craze subsided. Ben, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe were a clear favorite over ABC’s “Bewitched” in second and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C” (CBS) in third.

Bonanza
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1965 | Bonanza (NBC)

Stories about family set the show apart from other Westerns of the time. “You always saw stories about families on comedies, or on an anthology, but ‘Bonanza’ was the first series that was week-to-week about a family and the troubles that it went through,” Stephen Battaglio wrote in TV Guide.

1966 Bonanza Toy Brochure
1966 Bonanza Toy Brochure by Joe Haupt (CC BY-SA)

1966 | Bonanza (NBC)

The show would continue through the 1972 season, ending after 430 episodes as the second-longest running Western in TV history. It narrowly beat out “The Red Skelton Hour” (CBS) and “The Andy Griffith Show” (CBS) for the top spot.

The Andy Griffith Show
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1967 | The Andy Griffith Show (CBS)

In its final season, Andy and his Mayberry friends finally made it to the top of the ratings mountain with “The Lucy Show” (CBS) and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C” (CBS), a spin-off of Griffith’s show, right behind them.

TV Guide #808
TV Guide #808 by Jim Ellwanger (CC BY-NC)

1968 | Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (NBC)

The fast-paced comedy variety series quickly ascended the ratings in its first year to become what TV Guide calls “one of the most influential shows of its era.” With its cutting political satire and social commentary, you can bet your sweet bippy it was the place to be seen, attracting hordes of celebrities — including former vice president and presidential candidate Richard Nixon.

Laugh-In original cast album
Laugh-In original cast album by Ross (CC BY-NC-ND)

1969 | Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (NBC)

The show — filmed in beautiful downtown Burbank — was a launching pad for the careers of people like Goldie Hawn, Jo Anne Worley, Alan Sues, and Lily Tomlin. Cast turnover was high with only four members staying the full six years — the hosts, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, announcer Gary Owens, and Ruth Buzzi.

Marcus Welby, M.D.
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1970 | Marcus Welby, M.D. (ABC)

In a return to more traditional TV, Robert Young came out of retirement to play kindly Dr. Marcus Welby, a physician dedicated to treating the whole patient. He was ably assisted by young Dr. Steven Kiley (James Brolin). It was the biggest hit in ABC’s history up to that time and the first ABC series to win the seasonal ratings.

All in the Family
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1971 | All in the Family (CBS)

This midseason replacement in the 1970 season about a blue-collar bigot, his ditzy wife, and his liberal daughter and her husband weekly waded into some pretty deep waters for a comedy. Issues of race, women’s rights and politics dominated the storylines.


Related: The Best TV Shows Starring Boomers

All in the Family
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1972 | All in the Family (CBS)

Not only did the Bunkers continue to hold the top spot in the rankings, a spin-off, “Maude,” was launched based on the character of Edith’s liberal cousin. Bea Authur’s show finished at No. 4 for the season. NBC’s “Sanford and Son” was No. 2 on the list.

All in the Family
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1973 | All in the Family (CBS)

With “All in the Family” still going strong, CBS had nine of the top 10 shows on TV this season including “The Waltons” (No. 2), “Sanford and Son” (No. 3), “M*A*S*H” (No. 4), “Hawaii Five-O” (No. 5), and “Maude” (No. 6).

All in the Family
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1974 | All in the Family (CBS)

Inflation, Archie’s brief disappearance, religion, divorce, and a special 100th episode retrospective filled the season. Oh, and George and Louise Jefferson move out of the neighborhood and into their own midseason replacement spin-off series, which finishes the season at No. 4 behind NBC’s “Sanford and Son” and “Chico and the Man.”

All in the Family
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1975 | All in the Family (CBS)

In an unprecedented fifth year at the top of the ratings, Gloria and Mike move out and the Bunkers become grandparents. Norma Lear’s groundbreaking series would run for nine seasons, winning 21 Emmys before quietly ending in the spring of 1979.

Happy Days
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1976 | Happy Days (ABC)

It took a few seasons for the Cunninghams to reach the ratings summit. When they did, it was as the lead-in to ABC’s Tuesday night comedy lineup that included the “Happy Days” spin-off “Laverne & Shirley,” “Three’s Company,” and “Soap.” The network celebrated a big season with seven of the top 10 shows including “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” and “Baretta.”


Related: 29 Legendary Vehicles From '70s and '80s TV Shows

Laverne & Shirley
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1977 | Laverne & Shirley (ABC)

With America now well acquainted with the words “schlemiel” and “schlimazel,” ABC’s Tuesday night lineup continued to lead the ratings, now with the female buddy sitcom at the top. “Happy Days” — in which Fonzie jumped the shark — was second and “Three’s Company” was third, giving ABC a ratings trifecta.

Laverne & Shirley
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1978 | Laverne & Shirley (ABC)

The girls’ move into the 1960s continued to anchor ABC’s growing ratings dominance. The network also had the second through fifth shows in “Three’s Company,” “Mork & Mindy” (another “Happy Days” spinoff), “Happy Days,” and midseason replacement “Angie.”

60 Minutes
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1979 | 60 Minutes (CBS)

After bouncing around the CBS lineup since 1968, the show TV Guide calls “the granddaddy (and Rolls Royce) of newsmagazines” found a home on Sunday nights at 7 p.m. against lighter fare and viewers took note. It became the first — and still the only — news program to lead the TV ratings.

Dallas
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1980 | Dallas (CBS)

Who shot J.R.? That pop-culture obsession in the summer of 1980 forced viewers to wait from the end of one season to the next for answers to the cliffhanger CBS created — and played to maximum advantage. CBS held seven of the top 10 spots for the season with the increasingly popular “The Dukes of Hazzard” at No. 2.


Related: The 24 Most-Watched TV Show Finales

Dallas
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1981 | Dallas (CBS)

The soap opera that was the Ewing family continued to capture viewers for another season, keeping CBS on top of the ratings with TV sets across America also tuned to “60 Minutes” (CBS), “The Jeffersons” (CBS), and “Three’s Company” (ABC).

60 Minutes
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1982 | 60 Minutes (CBS)

Ed Bradley joined the show (replacing Dan Rather, who took over the “CBS Evening News” in 1981) and shared reporting duties with Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, and Harry Reasoner. And Andy Rooney would frequently launch into a commentary.

Dallas
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1983 | Dallas (CBS)

“The Ewings celebrated excess, and they saw the boardroom, ballroom, and bedroom as overlapping war zones,” Texas Monthly said. It may have been trashy and campy, but viewers continued to eat it up.

Dynasty
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1984 | Dynasty (ABC)

ABC brought its own wealthy dysfunctional family to the small screen as a midseason replacement in 1981. It took some time, but it finally clawed its way to the top of the ratings — with “Dallas” right behind.

The Cosby Show
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1985 | The Cosby Show (CBS)

America’s viewing habits swung back to less controversial fare when the Huxtable family came on the air in 1984. It wasn’t long before the series began to dominate the ratings. NBC’s sitcom “Family Ties” was the runner-up.


TV Guide #1693
TV Guide #1693 by Jim Ellwanger (CC BY-NC)
The Cosby Show
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1987 | The Cosby Show (CBS)

Another year at the top, but this time followed by spin-off “A Different World” at No. 2 with Lisa Bonet, Marisa Tomei, and Jasmine Guy in the cast. NBC’s “Cheers” was third again.

The Cosby Show
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1988 | The Cosby Show (CBS)

In its fourth year at the top of the ratings, “The Cosby Show” was trailed by a very different kind of family sitcom as “Roseanne” scored big for ABC. “A Different World” (NBC) was third followed by “Cheers” (NBC).


Roseanne
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1989 | The Cosby Show (CBS) and Roseanne (ABC)

In a rare tie atop the charts, the Huxtables and Connors went toe-to-toe. “Cheers” (NBC) finished third and “A Different World” (NBC) was fourth.

Cheers
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1990 | Cheers (NBC)

Long a top-five finisher, NBC’s popular sitcom finally made it to the top of the heap in its ninth season on the air — a season that included its 200th episode. It finished its run two seasons later, picking up 28 Emmys along the way and spinning off two more series: the short-lived “The Tortellis” and the more popular “Frasier.”

60 Minutes Stopwatch
60 Minutes Stopwatch by National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution (CC BY-NC)

1991 | 60 Minutes (CBS)

In its 24th season, the newsmagazine returned to the top of the ratings in a newsy kind of year with U.S. troops in Iraq and the presidential race heating up. But the rest of the week, viewers were tuned to comedies including No. 2 “Roseanne” (ABC), No. 3 “Murphy Brown” (CBS), and No. 4 (tie) “Cheers” (NBC), and “Home Improvement” (ABC).

60 Minutes
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1992 | 60 Minutes (CBS)

This was another big news year with the presidential election and the aftermath of the Rodney King beating. And there at No. 2 again was “Roseanne” (ABC), with “Home Improvement” (ABC) third, and “Murphy Brown” (CBS) fourth.

60 Minutes
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1993 | 60 Minutes (CBS)

The show devoted an episode to itself with Charles Kuralt exploring its first 25 years on the air. The next six spots were held by comedies: “Home Improvement” (ABC) was second, “Seinfeld” (NBC) third, and “Roseanne” (ABC) fourth, “Grace Under Fire” (ABC) fifth, “Coach” (ABC) sixth, and “Frasier” (NBC) seventh.

Seinfeld
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1994 | Seinfeld (NBC)

After a shaky start in 1990, “the show about nothing” found an audience and broke through. No. 2 “ER” (NBC) scored in its first season, launching the careers of George Clooney and Julianna Margulies, among others.


ER
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1995 | ER (NBC)

The medical drama from creator Michael Crichton became the top show on the air in its second season, cementing NBC’s hold on the top four ratings spots with “Seinfeld” second, “Friends” third, and “Caroline in the City” fourth.

ER
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1996 | ER (NBC)

NBC scored another big season, now with the top six shows on TV including “Seinfeld,” “Suddenly Susan,” “Friends,” “The Naked Truth” with Tea Leoni, and “Fired Up,” a midseason replacement that flamed out quickly.

ER
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1997 | Seinfeld (NBC)

The series’ last episode (No. 173) was one of the biggest shows of all time, drawing 76.3 million viewers — though many fans and critics were underwhelmed. NBC also held the next three spots with “ER,” “Veronica’s Closet” with Kirstie Alley, and “Friends.”

ER
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1998 | ER (NBC)

Once more at the top of ratings, the series would win 23 Emmys in its 15-season run. In this year, it also helped NBC hold the top six spots including “Friends,” “Frasier,” “Veronica’s Closet,” and “Jesse” with Christina Applegate.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
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1999 | Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (ABC)

Airing multiple nights each week, the show actually took the first, second and third spots in the ratings for the year, breaking NBC’s dominance (though “ER” and “Friends” were close behind).

Survivor
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2000 | Survivor (CBS)

“Survivor” didn’t invent reality TV, but it became the king of the genre in its debut season, opening the doors for other successful shows. Still popular “ER” (NBC) was second with the Tuesday and Wednesday editions of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (ABC) in third and fourth.


Related: 20 Shows That Make It Worth Trying Out Another Streaming Service