'The Last Dance,' 'The Walking Dead' and Cable's Top 2019-20 Performers

The Last Dance (ESPN), The Walking Dead (AMC) and Celebrity IOU (HGTV)-Split-H 2020
Courtesy of Netflix, AMC; HGTV

Like their broadcast counterparts, cable networks were largely down in the ratings during the 2019-20 season. As more households cut the cord and streaming options proliferate, viewership of linear networks continues to slide. Two months without live sports during the coronavirus pandemic also hurt the likes of NBA partners TNT and ESPN and regional sports networks that would have filled hundreds of hours with NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball games.

Which is not to say that the entire cable picture was gloomy. Below are some of the top performers of the just-completed season, from a huge docuseries about one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century to an initially lightly watched comedy that exploded via other viewing options.

The Last Dance: This is not just a case of recency bias. ESPN's nonfiction series about Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls is among the highest-rated shows on all of Nielsen-measured TV this season. Among adults 18-49, only three primetime NFL franchises and The Masked Singer ranked higher than The Last Dance's 2.9 rating. Across all platforms, the series averaged almost 12.9 million viewers through May 20.

The Walking Dead (still): Yes, the AMC flagship's numbers are a shadow of what they were a few seasons ago. The same could be said for a large majority of shows on linear networks, and the fact remains that The Walking Dead remains far above all other scripted shows on cable, averaging 5.4 million viewers and a 1.9 rating among adults 18-49 with a week of delayed viewing. The demo number ranks 11th among all Nielsen-measured primetime shows this season. AMC's Better Call Saul ranks fourth among cable dramas in adults 18-49 and 25-54, and the joint AMC and BBC America airings of Killing Eve rank 15th.

Food Network and HGTV: The two Discovery-owned networks have thrived during coronavirus lockdowns, with ratings rising by double digits since mid-March and Food Network quickly pivoting to at-home shows. HGTV's Celebrity IOU, which featured the likes of Brad Pitt and Melissa McCarthy helping Property Brothers' Drew and Jonathan Scott renovate homes for people who have meant a lot to them, was the biggest first-year series in the network's history. 

90 Day Fiancé: The multi-show franchise has been a hit for TLC for some time, but ratings for 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days have soared in the past two months. Before the 90 Days has averaged 3.35 million same-day viewers since its Feb. 23 premiere and has played a large role in making TLC the top cable channel among women in 2020 so far. Before the 90 Days also ranks in the top 40 across cable and broadcast TV among adults 18-49.

The Real Housewives universe: Bravo has more shows (six) among the top 100 broadcast and cable rankings in adults 18-49 than any other cable outlet. Three of those are Real Housewives series (Atlanta, Orange County and Beverly Hills), and a fourth, Vanderpump Rules, is a spinoff of Beverly Hills. (The other two are Below Deck and Below Deck Mediterranean.) There have been a staggering 58 seasons of Real Housewives in various locales since Orange County inaugurated the franchise in 2006.

Dave: Maybe no show on a linear network better illustrates the way viewer habits have changed than FXX's first-year comedy starring and co-created by Dave Burd, aka Lil Dicky. The show's initial audience on FXX was miniscule, averaging just 213,000 viewers per episode. With streaming, replays and delayed viewing, however, the audience grew by a factor of more than 20 to 5.32 million people, per FX Networks, making it the most-watched comedy series ever on FX or FXX.

The Outsider: HBO's Stephen King adaptation didn't attract the kind of buzz and week-in, week-out scrutiny of Watchmen or Westworld, but it did attract a bigger audience than either — some 9 million viewers per episode across all platforms. That's the biggest for a first-year HBO drama since season one of Westworld in 2016. (The Outsider is produced by MRC, which shares a parent company with The Hollywood Reporter.)