AMC’s breakthrough drama Mad Men ends tonight, eight years after its debut that put scripted basic cable television on the map. Despite the show’s cultural ubiquity(some would argue oversaturation) the final episode likely won’t come even close to breaking records for most-watched finales. This has much to do with the ways we now watch television compared to decades ago; in fact, when considering the finales that made the greatest cultural impact – The Sorpanos, Breaking Bad, and even The Colbert Report – the most-watched finales in history seem downright silly.
Take a quick look at mental_floss’s list of the ten most highly rated television finales. Somehow, Home Improvement makes the list, with other 35 million people watching Tim Allen’s last turn on as Tim Taylor. That has far less to do with the quality of Home Improvement than the network-dominated media environment that led it to massive popularity.
We don’t mean to rag on the quality of some of these shows. The finales of M*A*S*H and Cheers are certainly all-time classics, but it’s startling to consider any show that would draw an audience of over 50 million viewers. We’re sure Mad Men will bring out a big following, but with current media consumption patterns, we expect most fans to watch it on Netflix or Amazon months later.