TV Long View: How Cable's Top Shows Stack Up — or Don't — vs. Broadcast

Game of Thrones-The Walking Dead-Joe Tessitore-Publicity Stills-Split-H 2019

The final season of Game of Thrones was, in just about every way of looking at it, one of the biggest shows on TV in the 2018-19 season.

HBO has touted the massive all-in audience figures for the series — 44 million viewers (and presumably still rising) including all on-air showings, delayed viewing and streaming. That figure dwarfs every other show on TV — as far as anyone knows, at least. Networks and cable outlets don't regularly release cumulative numbers that include longer-tail figures like streaming. That 44 million figure, for instance, includes several weeks of streaming for the early episodes of Game of Thrones' final season.

That lack of transparency — which is an industry standard for streaming, incidentally, from Netflix to HBO to CBS — makes it nearly impossible to apply an apples-to-apples comparison for Game of Thrones' cumulative audience and that of other shows.

It is, however, possible to find a comparison point elsewhere: the Nielsen ratings. Game of Thrones was the biggest show on cable in 2018-19 and ranks in the top five among all Nielsen-rated shows, including broadcast. ESPN's Monday Night Football is a top-10 show, too; both averaged better than 11 million viewers in same-day ratings and ranked behind only other NFL broadcasts in the adults 18-49 demographic.

(Same-day ratings, even though they only reflect part of a show's eventual total, are a useful comparison here as reporting of delayed viewing on cable is spotty at best.)

AMC's The Walking Dead, despite its declines in recent seasons, would also rank in the top 10 in the 18-49 demographic for last season. After that, it's a pretty steep drop-off.

The No. 4 show on cable in adults 18-49 behind The Walking Dead is Lifetime's docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. With a same-day demo rating of 0.91, it would tie for 55th in the combined rankings with American Housewife, A Million Little Things and The Amazing Race.

There's a similar gap between Game of Thrones and Monday Night Football and the rest of cable in total viewers. The Walking Dead averaged 4.95 million viewers the night it aired, which would have been good for 55th place in a combined broadcast-cable ranking — 50,000 viewers or so ahead of The Goldbergs on ABC.

The (very real) ongoing audience erosion for broadcast networks gets a lot of attention, but cable ratings have been declining, too, and the vast, vast majority of cable shows wouldn't even crack the top 100 of the broadcast rankings (for the record, the 100th-ranked network shows in 2018-19 were Fox's The Gifted in adults 18-49 with a 0.61 rating and ABC's For the People in viewers at 2.87 million).

The occasional long-running sports franchise or once-a-decade phenomenon on cable can rise to the top, but for all the ways the lower third or so of the broadcast rankings resemble cable-like numbers, the shows above it aren't really playing the same game.

Here's how the top cable shows (shown in bold) would rank in a combined chart for the 2018-19 season. All figures are live-plus-same-day.

Adults 18-49 Rating

1. Sunday Night Football (NBC), 5.79
2. Game of Thrones (HBO), 5.15
3. Thursday Night Football (Fox), 4.33
4. The OT (Fox), 3.3
5. Monday Night Football (ESPN), 3.22
6. Football Night in America Part 3 (NBC), 2.7
7. The Masked Singer (Fox), 2.59
8. The Big Bang Theory (CBS), 2.24
9. This Is Us (NBC), 2.01
10. The Walking Dead (AMC), 1.91

55 (tie). Surviving R. Kelly (Lifetime), 0.91

Total Viewers

1. Sunday Night Football (NBC), 18.7 million
2. Thursday Night Football (Fox), 14.15 million
3. The Big Bang Theory (CBS), 13 million
4. NCIS (CBS), 12.11 million
5. Game of Thrones (HBO), 11.99 million
6. Monday Night Football (ESPN), 11.35 million

7. Young Sheldon (CBS), 11.14 million
8. The OT (Fox), 10.6 million
9. 60 Minutes (CBS), 10.18 million
10. America's Got Talent: The Champions (NBC), 10.12 million

55. The Walking Dead (AMC), 4.95 million

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