In an era of streaming services and solo viewing via phones/tablets, it may seem that television is a medium no longer able to please all age groups at the same time.
But broadcast TV episodes still regularly attract tens of millions of viewers, and networks apply decades of experience to produce shows with broad family appeal using tried and tested formulas.
We surveyed a panel of 2,000 Americans to find out which shows will keep everyone on the couch entertained, and which may leave some generations wanting to switch channels.
Top 10 Shows With All-Ages Appeal
|1||The Big Bang Theory||47%|
|3||Law & Order: SVU||39%|
|4||NCIS (and spinoffs)||36%|
|9||The Good Doctor||22%|
|10||Dancing with the Stars||22%|
Long-running sitcom The Big Bang Theory tops our chart, with at least 47% of people in each individual age group stating that they like it. In its final season it seems as strong as ever, and set to take its cross-generation popularity into reruns for years to come.
Crime dramas occupy the next three places, showing the evergreen broad appeal of the genre and its potential for spin-off shows. The top ten is rounded out by talent shows, medical dramas and another sitcom.
Though it could feel like a watered-down geek show playing on stereotypes, The Big Bang Theory works on two levels: it gives an audience the PG laughs it needs to be a mainstream sitcom and it has an undercurrent of intelligence and attention-to-detail it rarely gets credit for. The show embraces science and obscure geek references — and it smartly ensures that it's all real.
Though these details may go over some people's heads, it allows the show to attract a wider range of viewers. Most importantly, women get to be smart scientists that aren't questioned by their male counterparts. I think this adds to the appeal for both male and female audiences.
Heather Taylor, TV writer and filmmaker
The Most Divisive Shows in Our Survey
|The Walking Dead||38.1%||40.5%||36.3%||31.3%||13.7%|
Police procedural Blue Bloods was the sixth most-liked show for the 55+ age group, but its popularity falls for younger ages, finally plummeting to below 9% among 16-24 year olds. Hawaii Five-0 and MacGyver, both reboots of old shows, exhibit similar patterns.
The situation is very different for The Walking Dead, which maintains strong appeal through younger age groups before dropping very sharply for 55+. Putting a zombie drama on TV at a family gathering may not be a good choice.
Over-55s are still more wedded to traditional methods of television viewing. so it's not a surprise to have the most divisive series coming from CBS, who are strategically targeting this age group. Shows like Blue Bloods, MacGyver and Hawaii Five-0 reach this older generation by tapping into the nostalgia of the late ’60s and ’80s through remakes of hit shows from that time and using top talent like Tom Selleck, whose stardom launched with Magnum PI in 1980.
Heather Taylor, TV writer and filmmaker
All age groups bar one voted The Big Bang Theory their number one show — for 55+ it was pushed into second place by NCIS.
Despite a long, gradual decline in its ratings over the last decade, American Idol still made it into the top ten only a couple of places below newer upstart The Voice, showing that the format still entertains all generations.
These shows rank highly because they are not wholly polarizing through any themes or explicitness and they don't force the audience to consider bigger themes that would challenge them into an uncomfortable mental place. That's not to say these shows are anti-intellectual — it's just that their intent is to please, not disturb.
Julia Prescott, TV writer and performer
Explore the Data
The chart above plots the overall percentage of respondents who like each show against their divisiveness scores (standard deviation across age groups). Shows such as Blue Bloods, The Walking Dead and Hawaii Five-O, despite being reasonably well-liked overall, are clearly also highly divisive, with different age groups failing to agree on their merits.
|Divisiveness (SD)||Overall Likes||16‑24||25‑34||35‑44||45‑54||55+|
|The Big Bang Theory||46.5||3.3||51.0||52.5||55.7||51.8||54.2||46.5|
|Law & Order: SVU||38.8||1.5||41.9||38.8||42.5||41.6||41.0||42.9|
|NCIS (and spinoffs)||35.6||6.0||42.9||35.6||37.4||37.1||41.6||50.7|
|The Good Doctor||22.3||3.2||26.2||25.6||23.7||23.2||22.3||30.8|
|Dancing with the Stars||22.1||2.9||24.9||30.6||23.9||22.1||25.3||25.4|
|This Is Us||21.9||6.3||27.9||21.9||33.6||37.6||25.9||22.2|
|Game of Thrones||16.9||8.2||27.6||35.0||39.9||31.1||29.5||16.9|
|Will & Grace||16.3||7.0||28.6||16.3||33.1||33.7||33.7||24.2|
|The Walking Dead||13.7||10.4||28.0||38.1||40.5||36.3||31.3||13.7|
|Better Call Saul||12.9||4.5||18.6||23.8||24.7||20.5||19.9||12.9|
|Ellen's Game of Games||11.0||5.1||16.3||25.0||18.8||20.5||16.0||11.0|
|Life in Pieces||7.5||3.4||12.3||7.5||12.2||9.7||17.5||12.5|
|Wisdom of the Crowd||3.9||3.4||8.0||4.4||4.8||3.9||9.3||12.0|