25 Highest-Rated Shows of the ’90s
TV Guide Magazine recently published its list of the 90 Best Shows of the ’90s, which might have you wondering: What were the most popular shows of that era? Wonder no more!
We dove into the Nielsen ratings, crunched the numbers, and created this handy guide to The 25 Highest-Rated Shows of the ’90s. (A programming note: These rankings are based on cumulative Nielsen scores from the 1990–1999 seasons. We have restricted the list to only scripted series, thereby disqualifying franchises like Monday Night Football and 60 Minutes.)
Nothing like a surprise to kick off a list! In this overlooked CBS series, which has never made its way onto streaming platforms, Burt Reynolds plays a former Pittsburgh Steeler who returns to his hometown (the titular Evening Shade, Arkansas) to coach a high school team. The series ran for four seasons, hitting its rating peak in 1991-1992, when it climbed to the No. 15 slot.
Premiering exactly one day before ER in September 1994, David E. Kelley‘s medical drama starred Mandy Patinkin as a whiz surgeon with—go figure—emotional baggage. Though never a match for ER‘s ratings blitzkrieg, Chicago Hope captured a solid audience over six seasons, peaking at No. 24 in 1995-1996.
Cheers never fizzled. Among the most popular shows of the ’80s, it remained a ratings juggernaut for its three ’90s seasons, and was actually the highest-rated show of 1990. Nearly 40 percent of the country watched the final episode in May 1993, making it the second-highest-rated finale of all time (after M*A*S*H).
The Drew Carey Show
Drew Carey liked to say the character he played in The Drew Carey Show was basically what he would have been like if he had not become Drew Carey. This workplace sitcom set in a Cleveland department store consistently ranked in the teens through the last half of the ’90s.
For a certain type of person, Northern Exposure‘s eccentric denizens of Alaska were an early sign that TV had the potential to expand beyond its formulaic boundaries. Somehow, the series pooled enough of these quirky viewers in the early ’90s to consistently rank among the top 15 shows.
On the one hand, the legacy of The X-Files suggests a higher score than its No. 19 ranking. On the other, if it were any higher, could it maintain its reputation as a “cult classic”? Though Mulder & Scully never cracked the top 10 in the ’90s, they got eerily close a few times. And in a clear sign of entering the mainstream, the 2016 reboot clocked in as the 7th-highest-rated show of the season.
D’oh, why so low? Despite being the only show that aired every year of this list’s dominion, and hitting its creative peak during those years, The Simpsons was never a ratings smash. Its most successful season of the decade was 1992-1993, when it was the 30th most popular show in the country. Which is unexpected for a lauded series that landed at No. 8 in TV Guide Magazine‘s list of the 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
Touched by an Angel
God works in mysterious ways, and that includes turning a CBS series about an angel into a late-90s hit. Starring Roma Downey (aka Mrs. Mark Burnett), the series with Christian overtones (to put it mildly) peaked at No. 5 in its 1997-1998 season. An immaculate spinoff, Promised Land, lasted three seasons on CBS.
In what amounts to a ’90s take on The Brady Bunch, a widowed father (Bob Saget) forms an untraditional family to raise his three daughters (including one played by both Olsen twins). Though never favored by critics, the show consistently scored among the top 30 shows, landing as high as No. 8 in the 1991-1992 season.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Will Smith was already a successful rapper when he signed on to play a fictionalized version of himself as a street-smart kid who moves to…errr, if you need a plot refresher, the opening theme song reveals all. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air lasted six seasons, topping out at No. 16 in the 1992-1993 season.
Walker, Texas Ranger
It was an inauspicious premise: Chuck Norris‘s decorated Vietnam vet and martial arts expert becomes a Texas Ranger strictly tethered to the code of the Old West. Never quite the perfect formula to become an outright smash, the series nonetheless put up solid ratings, ranking among the top 25 shows from 1995 to 1999.
Imagining Family Matters without the piercing screech of Urkel might seem impossible, but the Jaleel White character didn’t actually appear until midway through the first season. Intended only as a one-time guest, the nerdy character became a breakthrough hit. After he was added full-time to the second season (1990-1991), the show catapulted to No. 15 in the ratings. “Did I do that?” Yes, yes, you did, Urkel.
Rounding off our top 10 of ratings hits is a critical darling known for pushing boundaries. It was clear from the pilot, when David Caruso and Amy Brenneman stripped down to their bare skin for some hanky-panky, that creator Steven Bochco would test the mettle of the FCC. The show peaked at No. 7 in its second year, no doubt aided by strategic flashes of backside and sideboob.
If not for Coach, would we have Ted Lasso? Maybe not. Centered around a midwestern college football team, the series scrapped its way to the top 10 three times in the early ’90s. Go, Screaming Eagles!
Lower in the list than you might’ve guessed? Friends suffers a slight disadvantage in this retrospective by not premiering until 1994. But Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross became an undeniable juggernaut in the last half of the decade, scoring among the top 5 shows every year.
As far as ratings go, getting pregnant was the best thing that could have happened to Murphy Brown. When the firebrand journalist became a single mom in the show’s fourth season (1991-1992), the series leapt into 3rd place. Being chided by the standing U.S. vice president also helped attract eyeballs. After veep Dan Quayle blasted the character for “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone,” the show sparked a national discussion about the diversity of the American family.
Law & Order
When it premiered in September 1990, Law & Order was far from a smash, ranking a lackluster 46th for each of its first two seasons. But ratings steadily improved throughout the decade, and by its 10th season, L&O had climbed to No. 13. The series would endure for 20 seasons before cancellation in May 2010. And then a decade later—dun-dun—it was renewed for a 21st season, which debuted in February 2022.
As we entered the decade, Roseanne was the No. 1 show in the country. It would remain in the top 4 during the first four years of its ’90s run before ultimately being canceled in 1997. When the series returned in 2018, it again debuted at No. 3, before tactfully morphing into The Conners.
From the moment it premiered in 1994, ER was a hit. During its first five seasons, Michael Crichton‘s medical drama was consistently either the 1st or 2nd most popular show every year. Even after George Clooney and Julianna Margulies hung up their scrubs at the end of the decade, it remained a ratings titan until the late ’00s.
Debuting in 1991, Home Improvement hammered away like a nail gun on the ratings for eight solid seasons. A consistent success, the Tim Allen sitcom finished in the top 4 for each of its first four seasons, and remained a top 10 hit through its entire run. Among the series’ contributions to the era, it launched the career of Pamela Anderson, who left her role as Tim’s Tool Girl after two seasons to join the beaches of Baywatch.
Seinfeld got off to a famously slow start. The ratings were so dismal during the first two seasons that it barely registered on Nielsen. Even by its third season, 1991-1992, Seinfeld was still only the 36th-rated show. Something finally clicked in Season 5, when it strutted like Kramer into 3rd place. The final four seasons closed on a hot streak, landing either 1st or 2nd in the ratings every year.