This website has now closed. Thank you for your visits over the years. The following sites provide alternative sources of information: | | |

TV@80: What the UK has been watching

To mark the week television turns 80, a list of the top twenty most watched TV shows has been published.

The top 20 list of most watched (non-sport) programmes published by the Press Association, mostly date back to the pre-digital era, when it was still possible for TV channels to attract large audiences. The Christmas 2001 episode of Only Fools and Horses is the only entry from this century, coming in at number 10.

Unsurprisingly, BBC One and the former ITV companies are responsible for all the top 20 programmes:

1. Only Fools and Horses (BBC One, 29 December 1996): 24.35 million
2. To The Manor Born (BBC One, 11 November 1979): 23.95 million
3. The Royal Variety Performance (ITV, 29 November 1967): 22.80 million
4. Panorama [Diana Interview] (BBC One, 20 November 1995): 22.77 million
5. The Royal Variety Performance (ITV, 14 November 1965): 21.70 million
6. Dallas (BBC One, 22 November 1980): 21.60 million
7. To The Manor Born (BBC One, 9 November 1980): 21.55 million
8. The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show (BBC One, 25 December 1977): 21.40 million
= Coronation Street (ITV, 2 January 1985): 21.40 million
10. Only Fools and Horses (BBC One, 25 December 2001): 21.35 million
11. Only Fools and Horses (BBC One, 27 December 1996): 21.33 million
12. Only Fools and Horses (BBC One, 25 December 1996): 21.31 million
13. The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show (BBC One, 25 December 1977): 21.30 million
14. The Royal Variety Performance (ITV, 10 November 1963): 21.20 million
= The Silver Jubilee Royal Variety Gala (ITV, 4 December 1977): 21.20 million
16. Bread (BBC One, 11 December 1988): 20.95 million
17. The Benny Hill Show (ITV, 14 March 1979): 20.85 million
18. Coronation Street (ITV, 18 December 1980): 20.80 million
19. Just Good Friends (BBC One, 21 December 1986): 20.75 million
20. Sale of the Century (ITV, 19 November 1977) 20.60 million
= Coronation Street (ITV, 9 January 1985): 20.60 million
= Coronation Street (ITV, 16 January 1985): 20.60 million

BBC Television started broadcasting on the 2nd November 1936, but it took a few decades for television to become widely available in households, and widely available across all parts of the UK. In the 1960s, television was able to command audiences of over 20 million for the first time, with the 1963 Royal Variety Performance the earliest entry in the top 20.

On Wednesday 2nd November, BBC Four will attempt to recreate Television's Opening Night in a special programme at 9pm.


  1. Interesting reading. So viewing figures used to top 24 million. So what about now? Is it because there are so many channels the audience is spread out or is it because the quality of programs is rubbish?

    1. Shows such as The Great British Bake Off still attract large audiences (14 million for last week's final in the overnight ratings), but the figures are diluted thanks to catch-up TV. And there are more channels around.
      But... the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony is not on the Press Association list --- it had an average 22.4 million viewers watching, peaking at nearly 27 million viewers.

  2. Funny, I thought that the Christmas Day edition of Eastenders in 1986 was up there with more than 30m viewers

  3. I'm pretty sure the funeral of Diana in September 1997, had somewhere around 31 million BBC viewers.


IMPORTANT: This post is open for comments for a limited period (usually 14 days) following its upload date. You can comment with a Google Account (e.g. for Gmail, YouTube, Google Play)
Comment not appearing? Comments may be subject to moderation and as such may not immediately appear on the site - comments will wait in the moderation queue until they are processed. Check back later. (Comments submitted anonymously may fail the spam filters.)

Please note: Some types of comments may be removed at the discretion of a516digital. With freedom of speech comes responsibility: Keep it clean, civil and on-topic! See the "About this website" section (link at the foot of the page) for full terms and conditions about what is and what isn't acceptable on this site.