Decade in Review: The Most-Watched Primetime TV Events

From Super Bowls to 'American Idol' to presidential debates, these are the biggest programs of the 2010s.
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The 2015 Super Bowl, with Katy Perry (left) and Missy Elliott performing at halftime, was the most-watched telecast of the 2010s.

The past 10 Super Bowls all rank among the 13 most-watched TV programs of all time in the U.S. in total viewers, so naturally they stand as the most-watched shows of the past decade.

Perhaps a little more surprising: The top series telecast of the 2010s wasn't American Idol or This Is Us or The Voice, but the post-Super Bowl premiere of Undercover Boss in 2010. The show, which has CEOs and company heads going incognito among their employees, drew 38.66 million viewers for its series debut.

According to Nielsen data from the past 10 years, well more than half of the 199 most-watched primetime programs of the decade were sports telecasts. NFL games alone account for a full third of list, 67 telecasts in all. There are Super Bowls and conference championships, to be sure, with Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 topping the list with 114.44 million viewers. But the list also includes a host of regular-season games: NBC's Sunday Night Football from week two of the 2015 season drew an average 26.38 million viewers, who watched the Green Bay Packers beat the Seattle Seahawks 27-17.

Were the list expanded to include all dayparts, the NFL would likely have an even bigger footprint, as the late Sunday afternoon national broadcast on CBS and Fox is consistently the biggest draw on network TV year to year.

Nielsen provided live plus same-day data for the decade, and the number of shows on the list from each year tell a story of shifting viewing habits. The years 2010-12 account for almost half the entries on the list, 94 in all, in a time before Netflix started making original shows and DVRs were in fewer than half of TV households. In the final three years of the 2010s, where a series is likely to get half or more of its eventual audience after its first airing, only 29 shows make the list. Just one of those, a post-Super Bowl This Is Us in 2018, is an episode of an ongoing entertainment series.

Everything in the lists below is measured by same-day audience. Comprehensive delayed-viewing data from the early part of the decade is hard to come by, and with the ever-expanding amount of data from digital platforms, making an apples-to-apples comparison across 10 years is not easy. Relying on same-day ratings may disadvantage more recent shows, but even with a week of delayed viewing, no more than a handful of episodes from the past couple of years would even crack the top 200.  

Here's how the top 199 primetime programs from 2010-19 break down.

Series Telecasts

Six of the 27 entertainment shows on the list got there by virtue of airing after the Super Bowl, including Undercover Boss, the season two premiere of The Voice in 2012, the aforementioned This Is Us and episodes of the normally much more modestly rated Glee, New Girl and The Blacklist.

The series with the most entries is American Idol, which in the early part of the decade was still a ratings behemoth for Fox. It makes up two-thirds of the entertainment-show entries on the list, with the season-nine premiere in January 2010 and its 29.95 million viewers topping the list. The 2010 and 2011 seasons were the tail end of the show's dominant first decade.

The top 10 series broadcasts of the decade are below. Post-Super Bowl airings are noted with an asterisk.

Undercover Boss* (CBS), Feb. 7, 2010: 38.66 million viewers
The Voice* (NBC), Feb. 5, 2012: 37.61 million
American Idol (Fox), Jan. 12, 2010: 29.95 million
American Idol, May 25, 2011: 29.25 million
Two and a Half Men (CBS), Sept. 19, 2011: 28.74 million
American Idol, Feb. 9, 2010: 27.91 million
This Is Us* (NBC), Feb. 4, 2018: 26.99 million
American Idol, Jan. 20, 2010: 26.86 million
Glee* (Fox), Feb. 6, 2011: 26.81 million
American Idol, Jan. 13, 2010: 26.42 million

Awards Shows

All 10 Oscar ceremonies from the 2010s are in the top 200, with the 2014 ceremony and its 43.63 million viewers on ABC marking the high point for all awards shows in the decade. Ratings for the show embarked on a four-year slide after that before bouncing back some in 2019, but even the all-time low of 26.62 million in 2018 is comfortably on the list.

Several Oscars red-carpet shows also make the Nielsen list, along with eight Grammy Awards. The 2012 Grammys, which aired in the aftermath of Whitney Houston's death, remain the peak for the show in the 21st century with almost 40 million viewers.

The top 10 awards telecasts are:

Oscars, March 2, 2014: 43.63 million viewers
Oscars, March 7, 2010: 41.71 million
Oscars, Feb. 24, 2013: 40.38 million
Grammy Awards, Feb. 12, 2012: 39.91 million
Oscars, Feb. 26, 2012: 39.34 million
Oscars, Feb. 27, 2011: 37.92 million
Oscars, Feb. 22, 2015: 37.3 million
Oscars, Feb. 28, 2016: 34.48 million
Oscars, Feb. 26, 2017: 33 million
Oscars, Feb. 24, 2019: 29.64 million

Multi-Network News Coverage

Outside of the Super Bowl, the most-watched TV events of the 2010s were the presidential debates of 2016 and 2012. Airing across at least 10 broadcast and cable channels, the six debates drew an average of 69 million viewers; only the third debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012 fell below 60 million.

Every State of the Union address from the decade ranks in the top 200, as well. The most-watched news event other than the debates was Obama's May 2011 announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, which averaged better than 56 million viewers.

The top 10 news events of the decade are:

Presidential debate 1, Sept. 26, 2016: 84 million viewers
Presidential debate 3, Oct. 19, 2016: 71.6 million
Presidential debate 1, Oct. 3, 2012: 67.2 million
Presidential debate 2, Oct. 9, 2016: 66.5 million
Presidential debate 2, Oct. 16, 2012: 65.6 million
Presidential debate 3, Oct. 22, 2012: 59.2 million
Presidential address, May 1, 2011: 56.5 million
Vice presidential debate, Oct. 11, 2012: 51.4 million
State of the Union address, Jan. 27, 2010: 48.01 million
Presidential address to Congress, Feb. 28, 2017: 47.74 million

Sports

The Super Bowls of the 2010s have the following all-time ranks for U.S. TV broadcasts, in terms of total viewers: First (2015), second (2014), third (2016), fourth (2012), fifth (2017), sixth (2011), seventh (2013), eighth (2010), 10th (2018) and 13th (2019).

Of course, the population of the U.S. is bigger than it's ever been, so there's a recency bias to total-viewer rankings. As a percentage of TV households, the series finale of M*A*S*H in 1983 still holds the all-time mark with 60.2 percent of TV homes tuning in.

Within this decade, though, the Super Bowl dwarfs everything else. At 98.48 million viewers, the least-watched Super Bowl of the decade in 2019 still has a 70 percent advantage over the next-biggest single-network telecast (the 2010 NFC title game, with 57.93 million people watching).

NFL games take up 67 spots in the top 200 of the decade, nearly twice as many as those of the Olympics (35). NBA Finals, World Series games and college football title games comprise the remaining sports telecasts in the top 200.

After the 10 Super Bowls, the next eight sports broadcasts in the rankings are NFL conference championship games. Below are the top 10 sports telecasts of the decade that aren't from the NFL.

Summer Olympics opening ceremony (NBC), July 27, 2012: 40.65 million viewers
World Series game seven (Fox), Nov. 2, 2016: 40.05 million
Summer Olympics, July 31, 2012: 38.72 million
Summer Olympics, Aug. 2, 2012: 36.7 million
Summer Olympics, July 29, 2012: 36.05 million
Summer Olympics, Aug. 9, 2016: 33.44 million
College Football Playoff Championship (ESPN), Jan. 12, 2015: 33.4 million
Winter Olympics opening ceremony (NBC), Feb. 12, 2010: 32.66 million
Winter Olympics opening ceremony, Feb. 7, 2014: 31.69 million
Summer Olympics, July 30, 2012: 31.58 million

Here are the 50 most-watched programs of the decade.

Rank Program Network Date Viewers (millions)
1 Super Bowl XLIX NBC Feb. 1, 2015 114.44
2 Super Bowl XLVIII Fox Feb. 2, 2014 112.19
3 Super Bowl 50 CBS Feb. 7, 2016 111.86
4 Super Bowl XLVI NBC Feb. 5, 2012 111.35
5 Super Bowl LI Fox Feb. 5, 2017 111.32
6 Super Bowl XLV Fox Feb. 6, 2011 111.04
7 Super Bowl XLVII CBS Feb. 3, 2013 108.69
8 Super Bowl XLIV CBS Feb. 7, 2010 106.48
9 Super Bowl LIII NBC Feb. 4, 2018 103.47
10 Super Bowl LIII CBS Feb. 3, 2019 98.48
11 Presidential Debate 1 Multiple Sept. 26, 2016 84.00
12 Presidential Debate 3 Multiple Oct. 19, 2016 71.60
13 Presidential Debate 1 Multiple Oct. 3, 2012 67.20
14 Presidential Debate 2 Multiple Oct. 9, 2016 66.50
15 Presidential Debate 2 Multiple Oct. 16, 2012 65.60
16 Presidential Debate 3 Multiple Oct. 22, 2012 59.20
17 NFC Championship Fox Jan. 24, 2010 57.93
18 NFC Championship Fox Jan. 22, 2012 57.64
19 Presidential Address Multiple May 1, 2011 56.50
20 NFC Championship Fox Jan. 19, 2014 55.91
21 AFC Championship CBS Jan. 23, 2011 54.85
22 AFC Championship CBS Jan. 20, 2019 54.16
23 Vice Presidential Debate Multiple Oct. 11, 2012 51.40
24 State of the Union Address Multiple Jan. 27, 2010 48.01
25 AFC Championship CBS Jan. 22, 2017 47.97
26 Presidential Address to Congress Multiple Feb. 28, 2017 47.74
27 State of the Union Address Multiple Feb. 5, 2019 46.79
28 State of the Union Address Multiple Jan. 30, 2018 45.55
29 Oscars ABC March 2, 2014 43.63
30 State of the Union Address Multiple Jan. 25, 2011 42.79
31 NFC Championship Fox Jan. 21, 2018 42.33
32 AFC Championship CBS Jan. 18, 2015 42.16
33 Oscars ABC March 7, 2010 41.71
34 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony NBC July 27, 2012 40.65
35 Oscars ABC Feb. 24, 2013 40.38
36 World Series Game 7 Fox Nov. 2, 2016 40.05
37 Grammy Awards CBS Feb. 12, 2012 39.91
38 Oscars ABC Feb. 26, 2012 39.34
39 Summer Olympics NBC July 31, 2012 38.72
40 Undercover Boss CBS Feb. 7, 2010 38.66
41 Oscars ABC Feb. 27, 2011 37.92
42 State of the Union Address Multiple Jan. 24, 2012 37.75
43 The Voice NBC Feb. 5, 2012 37.61
44 Oscars ABC Feb. 22, 2015 37.30
45 Vice Presidential Debate Multiple Oct. 4, 2016 37.20
46 NFL Divisional Playoff NBC Jan. 15, 2017 37.11
47 Summer Olympics NBC Aug. 2, 2012 36.80
48 Summer Olympics NBC July 29, 2012 36.05
49 Democratic National Convention Multiple Sept. 6, 2012 35.72
50 NFL Divisional Playoff Fox Jan. 14, 2018 35.66

Source: Nielsen, THR research