There really was a Nielsen. The Nielsen rating is named after him; Arthur C. Nielsen, who initially rated radio programs and then, with the advent of television, moved into TV as well. Nielsen began measuring TV ratings in 1950; every single year since then, there has been one highest-rated series per year. (Or, in a few rare instances, two highest-rated series, in the case of a tie.)

The list below is a comprehensive history of every single show that has earned that rare and impressive distinction. In almost 70 years there have only been 30 different TV ratings champions. Some of the names that topped the television ratings will surprise you, and some of the names that never did will surprise you too.

A few of the most popular series never became number one hits. A lot of the early hits have been largely forgotten to time; Westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza that were enormously popular in the early days of television but didn’t resonate with later generations. Meanwhile, The Simpsons has been running for 30 years straight on FOX, but it’s never been the top show in any of those years. The Nielsen is a fickle mistress. And a lot of the “greatest” shows of the last few decades appeared on cable, where they weren’t available in enough homes to rate with the likes of NCIS or Sunday Night Football.

So what follows is an interesting historical snapshot, incomplete but still a valuable look into evolving American tastes. The first number one hits were live variety shows, in part because all television at the time was live, and performers with experience on the stage were best suited to the format. That gave way to early sitcoms and many Westerns. The ’70s were dominated by more sitcoms and then by newsmagazine shows. Recently, reality series have become the most valuable commodity in TV. Now things are coming full circle, with live programming drawing the most eyeballs (although it tends to be live sports now instead of vaudeville acts). Which means a Western revival should be coming any day...

In chronological order, here are all the top-rated shows for every year since 1950.

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