A large number of TV shows are easily recognizable by name, and many people can probably tell you basic plotlines for most of them. But when it comes to the numbers behind who actually watched all of these shows, things start to look a little different. For instance, far fewer people (on average) were watching The Simpsons and Everybody Loves Raymond in 1997 than NBC’s Union Square. Union what?
Though ratings are rarely the best way to determine a show’s specific impact on society at large, each year’s top-rated shows often lack a surprising number of much-talked-about series, and here are 7 shows whose fame was far more prevalent by word-of-mouth over eyes-on-screens. And I’m betting all the Marshmallows out there know where we’re starting off.
Veronica MarsA show that was so seemingly popular that creator Rob Thomas’ Kickstarter for a follow-up film broke crowdfunding records at the time, Veronica Mars’ entire three-season run rarely attracted more than 3 million viewers per episode, which was extremely disappointing, even though it aired on UPN-turned-The CW. The poor ratings, combined with a not-so-cheery reaction to Season 3, caused The CW to can the show before audiences could find out if Kristen Bell’s titular character would head to the FBI, and a cult viewership was born.
The Brady BunchHere’s a story of a gigantic family that entered the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere, but never actually entered the list of 30 highest-rated shows during its 1969-1974 run. Now, that doesn’t mean that NO ONE was watching it obviously, as even the lowest tiered show on those lists back then still brought in around 19 million viewers. But The Brady Bunch epitomizes the early 1970s, has one of the most recognizable theme songs of all times, and spawned multiple spinoffs and a pair of solid self-aware movies in the 1990s. How did more people watch Hee Haw than this?
FireflyJudging from the still-ongoing outcry against Fox for canceling Firefly after just one season, you’d think that the entire country was watching it live from their Serenity-themed couches. But no, it was the low ratings that essentially caused Fox to get rid of the show, as it was only bringing in an average of around 4.7 million viewers a week. Sure, we can say that it’s still Fox’s fault for airing episodes out of order and not running all the episodes in the first place, but we should all be able to come to grips with the fact that audiences themselves caused it to place 98th in the ratings in 2002.
BatmanDespite being an extremely successful transition from comic books to television – helped in part by a wacky visual style, silly jokes and spot-on hamming by its talented cast – Batman never really saw ratings that put it in the upper echelon of television. And you can’t say it didn’t try, since it was one of the few scripted primetime series in history to air two new episodes a week, often with a cliffhanger plot to draw audiences in. (This is what allowed it to reach 120 episodes in just 3 seasons.) But, like other shows on this list, the cult audience it has attracted over the years would have made it a monster success had everyone been watching at the time.
Perfect StrangersIf you haven’t delivered at least one Balki Bartokomous impression a year ever since Perfect Strangers started airing on ABC, then you can’t consider yourself a true TV fan. (That declaration may be in error.) With a fish-out-of-water premise that felt just right in the mid-1980s, Perfect Strangers was always a decent enough ratings draw, but one that seemed like it should have been better, considering its place within the mega-popular TGIF lineup on ABC. Of course, during the show’s eight seasons, the network moved it from Tuesdays to Wednesdays to Fridays to Saturdays and back to Fridays, so maybe audiences just couldn’t keep up.
Mad MenOne of the most critically lauded series of all time, AMC’s Mad Men was a regular staple for Internet thinkpieces and recaps and blogs and the like. So much so, in fact, that it seems like there were more articles written about the show in a given year than there were actual viewers. Despite being intelligently crafted awards bait, Mad Men’s weekly ratings only topped 3 million live viewers 3 times in its seven-season run, and it often barely had 2 million people watching, especially during its extended final season. Blame it on Sunday nights?
The Muppet ShowNow, no one is saying that the Muppets themselves aren’t extremely popular characters in the world of pop culture, but they were just finding their human-directed footing back in the late 1970s, as Jim Henson capitalized on Sesame Street’s fame by taking things to a more adult and celebrity-oriented place. Unlike most series, however, The Muppet Show was reaching its highest ratings in its final season, and Henson decided to end it on a high note to focus more on his film projects. And yet somehow Little House on the Prairie was still watched by more people that year. Meep that.