NBC Narrowly Overtakes CBS Among Total Viewers for First Time Since 2002

The network, boasting the Super Bowl and the Olympics this season, had been posting a decisive lead in the key demo.
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NBC is having a hell of a season, one that only stands too look better over the next two weeks of Olympic coverage.

For the first time since 2002, NBC actually ranks as the most-watched network on TV — not just the highest-rated, a title it has again been assured of since the fall. Most-watched status has belonged to CBS for the last 15 seasons, with the notable exception of 2007-08, when an American Idol-driven and Super Bowl-bolstered Fox led a year fatigued by the infamous WGA strike. (CBS ranked No. 2 that year.)

NBC's current advantage among total viewers is slim, besting CBS with an average 9.57 million viewers in primetime to 9.39 million in the most-current available data from Nielsen. But that tiny lift, a lead of barely 2 percent, stands to get bigger as the network continues its thus-far impressive coverage of the Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, through Feb. 25.

Will it be enough to hold onto No. 1 until the end of the season? That remains to be seen and will greatly depend on respective performances between March and May. After all, the boon of the Super Bowl has already been factored in, as has NBC's heaviest schedule hitter, Sunday Night Football.

The network's status in the key demo, on the other hand, is not in doubt. NBC holds a daunting 39 percent lead over its closest competitor among adults 18-49. The network is averaging a 2.47 rating among adults 18-49 through Feb. 11, an improvement of a scant 2 percent from the same period last year even with the Super Bowl. The rest of the Big Four are all quite a ways down the totem pole, and have non-incremental losses, with Fox (1.77), CBS (1.66) and ABC (1.45) all clustered relatively close together.

The last time NBC ranked as the most-watched network in America, Friends was still at the height of its popularity, averaging 24.5 million weekly viewers for the network. ER, no slouch, either, still pulled 22.1 million viewers. And The West Wing, the critical darling of the day, was enjoying the biggest season of its tenure with an average 17.2 million viewers.

Current NBC flagship This Is Us averages 16.6 million viewers an episode with live-plus-7 lifts. 

Season-to-Date Averages (and 2016-17 comparisons)
Total Viewers
1. NBC — 9.569 million (up 7 percent)
2. CBS — 9.385 million (down 8 percent) 
3. ABC — 5.911 million (down 7 percent) 
4. Fox* — 5.892 million (down 19 percent) 
Adult 18-49 Rating
1. NBC — 2.47 (up 2 percent) 
2. Fox — 1.77 (down 24 percent)
3. CBS — 1.66 (down 15 percent)
4. ABC — 1.45 (down 12 percent)

*Fox aired the Super Bowl in 2017, a significant factor in its YOY drops