Who are the most successful US prime-time network television stars of all-time?

To my knowledge, nobody has tried to accurately answer this before.

Critics and experts can argue this indefinitely, but I like to take a mathematical approach to these things. Thanks to the internet, and a lot of grunt work, this is what I came up with.

Step one was getting a list of the top television shows of each season since 1951. That was the year that televisions first outsold radios and became the primary form of American home entertainment. I found the top 30 of each year from 1951 to 1999 here.

Beginning with 2000, I used Wikipedia. All data was based on Nielsen ratings and to keep my sanity I limited each year to the top 30 shows.

Next step was determining what shows to include and which to exclude. I decided to only include dramas and comedies. Because I only had access to prime-time ratings, no late-night talk shows (sorry Johnny Carson) or daytime game shows (sorry Bob Barker) could be included. Also: no sports, no variety shows (sorry Ed Sullivan), no talent contests (sorry Ryan Seacrest), no reality competitions (sorry, Jeff Probst), no news magazines, and of course, no movies. My argument is that the star of such shows is the content, not the host. For the most part, we don’t watch Dancing with the Stars for Tom Bergeron; we watch for the dancing. We didn’t watch Monday Night Football for Don Meredith; we watched to see the Cowboys play the Bills. We didn’t watch American Idol to hear Simon Cowell’s insults; we… well, that’s probably an exception.

Without those limitations this would be a very different list, and I suspect that #1 on the list would have been Morley Safer of 60 Minutes–with several other correspondents from that show in the top 10.

I also didn’t include cartoons although no cartoon (even The Simpsons) was ever in the top 30 long enough to affect the list.

Next was determining a point-system. I decided arbitrarily to give straight inverse points for each show each season: 51 points minus the position in the ratings. So the #1 show of each season got 50 points; the #30 show got 21 points.

Then came identifying the stars of these series. For long-running series this was pretty simple. I’ve been watching TV for over (sigh) half a century, so I’m familiar with most long-running shows. I decided that each “lead” (or co-lead) actor would get full points, regular significant supporting characters would get half those points. As it turned out, not that many actors who played “supporting” characters made the top 30.