Top 20 Most Watched Events in History
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Most Watched Events in History.
For this list, we’ll be looking at scheduled historic events that drew the highest viewing numbers on television. We will not be including scripted TV episodes or live disasters like the Challenger explosion.
Did you happen to catch any of these live? Let us know in the comments below!
#20: The First Debate Between Richard Nixon & John F. Kennedy
Television was a relatively new medium in 1960, and it opened up a world of possibilities in the political sphere. One of the most important was the broadcast of presidential debates. Millions of Americans tuned in to watch Richard Nixon battle John F. Kennedy in the first ever televised debate. This was not a regular occurrence at the time, and wouldn’t become so until the mid ‘70s, so that made the occasion even more special. The first debate occurred on the night of September 26, 1960 and was hosted by Chicago’s WBBM-TV. Between 60 and 70 million Americans tuned in to the event, which were huge numbers at the time. In fact, it accounted for roughly two-thirds of the country’s adult population.
#19: The Beatles on “Ed Sullivan”
By 1964, it was clear that television was having a major impact on politics and pop culture. Enter a little band called The Beatles. The group appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on the night of February 9, 1964, and music was never the same. The Beatles performed a number of popular songs, including “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and an estimated 73 million people tuned in to watch and listen. The broadcast received a rating of 45.3, meaning 45% of all American households had watched the broadcast. Not only did this break television records, but it launched Beatlemania and the larger British invasion of pop music.
#18: The Grand Opening of Disneyland
Ask any child where they want to go on vacation, and chances are that Disneyland is near the top of the list. Now a worldwide institution, Disneyland officially opened for business on July 17, 1955. And what a disaster it was! Pretty much everything that could go wrong did. Traffic was backed up for miles, the park ran out of food, many rides broke down, and there were few working water fountains during the 100 degree day. Even the live broadcast of its opening was a disaster, with constant technical difficulties coming from an overworked crew. Regardless, this was a huge event, and an estimated 90 million people watched the park’s grand opening through their television screens.
#17: Richard Nixon’s Resignation Speech
It was August 8, 1974, and the infamous Watergate scandal was finally coming to an end with the resignation of Richard Nixon. This was the historic finale of two years’ worth of build up, and expectations were startlingly high for TV figures. In fact, many industry analysts predicted that Nixon’s resignation speech would become the most watched event in television history. It didn’t quite reach those heights, however, with estimates ranging between 90 and 110 million viewers. A certain event had already exceeded those numbers, but we’ll get to that in a bit. While this audience didn’t meet expectations, it still represented an enormous interest from the general public. After his speech, Nixon left the Oval Office with many eyes on his back.
#16: Super Bowl LVII
If anyone says football is dying, you can just show them the viewing figures for Super Bowl LVII. This game was played on the night of February 12, 2023, with the Kansas City Chiefs defeating the Philadelphia Eagles 38-35. The event took place inside Glendale’s State Farm Stadium, with nearly 68,000 people packed between its walls. The television figures were also enormous and a huge success for Fox, with 115 million viewers tuning in to watch the Chiefs hoist the trophy. This not only makes Super Bowl LVII the most-watched Super Bowl ever, but also the second most-watched TV broadcast in American history. So, yeah, football is doing just fine.
#15: The O.J. Simpson Verdict
Nothing brings the country together like a sensational true crime story. O.J. Simpson was once one of the most popular and beloved football players in the history of the sport. As of 2023, he continues to hold the record for the highest single-season yards-per-game average, a feat he achieved back in 1973. Understandably, the country was left in a state of complete shock when he was put on trial for the murders of Ron Goldman and his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. The trial was extensively followed by a deeply interested American public. After 11 months, a verdict was reached on October 3, 1995, with over 150 million viewers watching Simpson be acquitted of both charges.
#14: The Wedding of Prince William & Catherine Middleton
Royal weddings are a huge public affair, and they continue to draw enormous crowds from around the world. One of the biggest of our time occurred on April 29, 2011, when Prince William married Catherine Middleton. This was a relatively basic affair by royal wedding standards, as William was not the heir apparent at the time. But even a small royal wedding can pull the biggest crowds - both in person and through the television screen. One million people observed the procession between Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace in person. And while global television viewing estimates are hard to gauge, most sources place the number between 122 and 176 million.
#13: The State Funeral of John F. Kennedy
At Least 180 Million
Unfortunately, it’s hard to estimate exactly how many people watched the state funeral of John F. Kennedy. For one thing, the funeral was covered by the three major networks - ABC, CBS, and NBC - whereas most events are only on one. Furthermore, the broadcast was aired live and uninterrupted over a duration of 70 hours. By one estimate, the funeral was seen by a collective 180 million people, but the real figure is likely much higher. According to the Los Angeles Times, 96% of American households watched more than 30 hours of the funeral on television. And that’s not even accounting for those abroad. Regardless, it’s evident that this was a monumental piece of history that millions wished to respectfully honor.
#12: The Wall – Live in Berlin
Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame was once asked if he would ever again perform “The Wall” in concert. He said he might whenever the Berlin Wall came down, but otherwise no. Well, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and Waters was a man of his word. He staged “The Wall - Live in Berlin” to celebrate the occasion, and the concert was held on the night of July 21, 1990. The event was produced by Tony Hollingsworth, and approximately 350,000 people attended the concert in person. A further 500 million people watched the historic event on television, speaking to the respective influence of both the Berlin Wall and Pink Floyd’s seminal album.
#11: 2011 Cricket World Cup Final
Cricket isn’t a game you hear too much about in America, but it’s clearly huge in the rest of the world. The sport routinely draws massive viewing figures, which is most evident by the final match of the 2011 Cricket World Cup, played between India and Sri Lanka. This game was a huge cultural event in India. Not only did it occur in the host nation’s Wankhede Stadium, but it was watched by an estimated 135 million people throughout the country. According to the International Cricket Council, 558 million people from around the world watched India defeat Sri Lanka for their second World Cup title.
#10: The Moon Landing
You know, humans walking on the moon is a pretty big deal. Understandably, a ton of people tuned in, not wanting to miss out on what could very well be the most important event in modern history. This is the aforementioned broadcast that defeated Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, in terms of numbers. While that drew between 90 and 110 million viewers, the moon landing was observed by 125 million Americans. And while it was the U.S. that landed on the moon, this was a moment that belonged to the world at large. And they all tuned in, to the extent of 650 million global viewers. One giant leap for mankind, indeed.
#9: “CCTV New Year's Gala” 2018
Hosted on China’s CCTV-1, the “New Year's Gala,” or “Chunwan” as it’s often called, is an annual variety show that takes place on the eve of the Chinese New Year. According to the Guinness World Records, the “New Year’s Gala” is the most watched television program in the entire world, attracting hundreds of millions on an annual basis. The 2018 edition was very special, as it reached the incredible milestone of one billion viewers. It’s easy to see why the event is so popular, as it features wonderful feats of dancing, music, and even drama.
#8: “Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite”
It’s hard to quantify to modern listeners just how popular Elvis Presley was. On January 14, 1973, Presley played a show at the Honolulu International Center which was broadcast live throughout Asia and Oceania. It was not shown live in the United States, but NBC aired a 90 minute special about the concert over two months later. “Aloha from Hawaii” was an enormous success in various Asian countries, with over 90% of the Philippines, 80% of South Korea, and 70% of Hong Kong tuning in to watch. When it was all said and done, an estimated 1.5 billion people saw the concert on TV, although these figures have been questioned by some.
#7: 2022 FIFA World Cup Final
The 2022 FIFA World Cup faced much criticism owing to it taking place in Qatar. But that didn’t stop billions from tuning in to watch the final between Argentina and France. Taking place on December 18, 2022, Argentina emerged victorious after defeating France 4-2 in a penalty shootout. The entire World Cup was a ratings success, with the opening match between Qatar and Ecuador drawing 550 million viewers. But it was the final that was the true ratings juggernaut, attracting approximately 1.5 billion people throughout the world. It even garnered 16.8 million viewers in the United States, making it the most-watched World Cup Final in the country’s history.
#6: Live Aid
Speaking of massive, culture-defining concerts, let’s talk Live Aid! Known as the “global jukebox,” Live Aid was organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise money for a devastating famine that struck Ethiopia in the early ‘80s. In a fun global show of support, Live Aid took place simultaneously at London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Stadium. A concert is nothing without its line-up, and Live Aid had an all-timer, featuring names like U2, Queen, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, and Madonna. With such stellar acts and a worthwhile cause behind it, Live Aid drew unprecedented viewing figures. It’s estimated nearly two billion people watched the concert on TV, equating to roughly 40% of the entire world’s population.
#5: Leon Spinks vs. Muhammad Ali II
In one corner was Leon Spinks, the then-reigning WBA and The Ring heavyweight champion. In the other was contender Muhammad Ali, who hoped to claim the titles from the undefeated Spinks. This was a rematch from an earlier bout, which saw Spinks winning by split decision and stripping Ali of his many belts. 63,000 people packed into New Orleans’s Superdome to watch the two giants box, and 90 million Americans witnessed the bout on television. However, this was just a fraction of the global audience, as an estimated two billion viewers watched from around the world. In the end, Ali won by unanimous decision.
#4: The Funeral of Michael Jackson
It’s clear that music speaks to a lot of people, and it’s often the thing that helps bring us all together. King of Pop Michael Jackson passed away on June 25, 2009 after suffering an overdose on medication. His memorial service was held twelve days later on July 7 and occurred inside L.A.’s Staples Center. This was the type of television event that superseded everything else, and most major networks were devoted to covering the service. The funeral was even played in movie theaters in the U.S. and many other countries. It was broadcast live around the world through both traditional television and the internet, and it reportedly attracted a global audience of 2.5 billion people.
#3: The Funeral of Princess Diana
On July 29, 1981, Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles in front of a global audience of 750 million people. Sixteen years later, over three times as many viewers watched her funeral. Diana famously died in a car accident on August 31, 1997, and her funeral was held on September 6. It attracted over 30 million viewers in the United States, despite taking place very early in the morning. Another 31 million people watched in the United Kingdom, making it the second most-viewed event in the country’s history behind the 1966 FIFA World Cup Final. When global figures were totaled and accounted for, the funeral of Princess Diana attracted roughly 2.5 billion viewers.
#2: The 1996 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony
The opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics was a monumental television event, witnessed by at least one billion people. Unfortunately, the viewing figures are hard to quantify, with many different sources reporting different numbers. The story is much clearer with the 1996 Olympics, and the results are staggering. These Summer Olympics were held in Atlanta, and the opening ceremony took place inside the city’s Centennial Olympic Stadium. With big names like Muhammad Ali, Celine Dion, and John Williams in attendance, the opening ceremony was seen by three and a half billion people from across the world, making it the second most-watched event in television history. It remained in the top spot for over 25 years, until it was dethroned by…
#1: The State Funeral of Elizabeth II
History was being witnessed throughout the early 21st century. Queen Elizabeth II had been in power since 1952, making her the longest-reigning monarch in British history. With over 70 years on the throne, Elizabeth beat the record previously held by Queen Victoria, who ruled for 63 years between 1837 and 1901. Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s reign ended with her death on September 8, 2022 at the age of 96. Her state funeral occurred on September 19 and drew an estimated and unprecedented four billion viewers from across the world. And with that, Queen Elizabeth set another record that is unlikely to be surpassed in our lifetimes.