When CBS aired the final episode of M*A*S*H in 1983, more than 100 million Americans tuned in to say farewell to one of the most-beloved shows in U.S. television history. The same is true for the series finales of Cheers (1993), Seinfeld (1998) and Friends (2004) that each drew between 65 and 84 million viewers – at the same time.
These days, in the age of timeshifted viewing and binge-watching, such massive live TV events are on the verge of extinction with one notable exception: live sports. As opposed to scripted dramas and sitcoms, sports broadcasts lose most of their appeal when not consumed live. According to Nielsen, 93 percent of all sports TV viewing was done live in 2017, whereas that share is considerably lower for most scripted programming. Taking this into account, it doesn’t come as a big surprise that the majority of the Top 100 telecasts of 2017 were sports broadcasts.
According to Nielsen, 86 of the 100 highest-rated programs in terms of live plus same day viewing were sports broadcasts with the NFL standing head and shoulders above any other sport. Television networks have long realized the role of sports programming as their last stronghold against increasingly strong online competition. As the following chart illustrates, the amount of sports programming aired on U.S. TV more than quadrupled over the past 15 years.
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