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Stipulated: The 2020-21 TV season, which concluded Wednesday, was not a great one for traditional TV. Amid the tragedy and challenges of a pandemic and an ongoing, years-long shift in viewer habits, the average ad-supported, Nielsen-rated outlet lost about 17 percent of its total audience compared to 2019-20, and about 23 percent of their viewers in the key ad demographic of adults 18-49.
So yeah, most everything was down. Within that context, though, some shows still turned in solid performances. Here are some of the winners and losers for the season, with the network picture to follow.
The Equalizer: CBS’ reboot of the 1980s series ranks second in total viewers among all non-sports shows in Nielsen’s seven-day ratings for the season and is a clear No. 1 among first-year series. Its average of 12.36 million viewers is helped quite a bit by its post-Super Bowl premiere, but even taking that out it would still lead all rookies and rank in the top 10 of all shows. (NBC’s Law & Order: Organized Crime and ABC’s Big Sky were also standouts in the first-year class.)
Ken Jeong: The Masked Singer, on which Jeong is a judge, remains the top-rated entertainment show on broadcast TV among adults 18-49 (its 2.0 rating is tied with This Is Us). Jeong also hosts I Can See Your Voice, which ranks in the top five among new series in the demo — and is so far the only one of several Masked Singer companion shows Fox has renewed for 2021-22.
The Undoing and Mare of Easttown: The two HBO prestige pulp series have followed similar upward ratings trajectories. The Undoing grew each week it aired in the fall and ended up with 13 million cross-platform viewers. Mare has also increased its audience every week, hitting a first-night high of 2 million viewers on all platforms for its penultimate episode on May 23.
Your Honor: Similarly, the Showtime drama starring Bryan Cranston became its biggest limited series ever and had the most watched debut season of any Showtime original. It averaged better than 7 million cross-platform viewers.
NCIS and Grey’s Anatomy: The two cornerstone dramas at CBS and ABC are wrapping their 18th (NCIS) and 17th (Grey’s) seasons among the upper echelons of the Nielsen rankings — where they’ve spent virtually their entire runs. NCIS is the most watched primetime series that’s not an NFL franchise, coming in at 12.67 million viewers per episode. Grey’s Anatomy, meanwhile, is third among all entertainment shows among adults 18-49 and ranks second on ABC in viewers with 8.23 million.
Awards shows: Pick an awards telecast, and odds are it hit all-time or multiyear lows this season. Oscars? Lowest ever. Grammys? Same. Golden Globes? The lowest since the writers’ strike of 2007-08 turned that year’s show into a star-free press conference. You get the idea. Viewers were not interested in remote or drastically downscaled in-person awards.
The fall sports pileup: The NFL was relatively unscathed this season, with a modest 7 percent decline in viewers for the regular season. But pandemic-altered events like the NBA and NHL finals, the World Series, the Kentucky Derby and the U.S. Open golf tournament suffered declines of 30 percent or more as they all crowded into the calendar in the fall. Fortunately for leagues and TV rights holders, things have stabilized somewhat as the sports calendar has resumed a more normal rhythm.
Consistent scheduling: Among the many, many things the pandemic disrupted (and far down the list in terms of importance) is the ability for producers to churn out big batches of scripted TV episodes. This Is Us, for instance, never aired more than three episodes in a row this season. Young Sheldon‘s longest stretch was a seven-week run to close the season. The scattershot scheduling especially in the first half of the season was likely a factor in ratings declines.
Fall filler: With their regular series unable to start production over the summer (see above), broadcast networks scrambled to fill their schedules any way they could. In many cases that meant acquired shows from Canada and elsewhere or network debuts of series that had previously run on streaming services. With but a couple of exceptions (NBC’s Transplant and The CW’s Coroner, both from Canada), viewers are unlikely to see any of them again, at least not outside the deepest of summer doldrums.
The year-to-ear declines by the big four broadcast networks are in line with the larger trend, with one exception: Fox took larger hits to both its total viewer and adults 18-49 averages in part because it aired the Super Bowl in 2020, while CBS had it this year.
Even without the biggest TV broadcast of the season, however, Fox still managed to hold on to its position as the top-rated network in the 18-49 demographic with a 1.1 rating (about 1.38 million viewers in that age range). CBS, which declared its 12th total-viewer victory in the past 13 seasons back in April, maintained its lead through May and finishes the season with a primetime average of 6.26 million viewers, about 900,000 ahead of second-place NBC.
Here’s how the broadcast networks stack up for the season:
|2020-21 viewers (rating)||1.381 million (1.1)||1.329 million (1.0)||1.247 million (1.0)||1.184 million (0.9)||505,000 (0.4)||396,000 (0.3)||246,000 (0.2)|
|vs. 2019-20||-769,000 (-36%)||-361,000 (-21%)||-83,000 (-6%)||-236,000 (-17%)||-101,000 (-17%)||-84,000 (-17.5%)||-144,000 (-37%)|
|Total viewers (millions)||CBS||NBC||ABC||Fox||Univision||Telemundo||The CW|
|-1.15 (-18%)||-0.7 (-13%)||-1.98 (-32%)||-0.14 (-9.5%)||-0.06 (-5.5%)||-0.19 (-18%)|
ABC is claiming an adults 18-49 win counting only entertainment programming for the second straight season. Its 0.9 rating excluding sports and news is the same as its overall primetime average, while Fox (0.8) CBS and NBC (both 0.7) — which have bigger footprints with sports and news programming — are below their overall averages.
Univision held its lead over Telemundo to top the list of Spanish-language broadcasters, though its year-to-year declines were a little bit larger than Telemundo’s.
On cable, the presidential election and its aftermath helped Fox News (2.95 million viewers), MSNBC (2.15 million) and CNN (1.86 million) claim the top three places in primetime total viewers — though viewership for all three has cooled some in the past few months. MSNBC and CNN both grew season to season, while Fox News had a modest 7 percent decline.
ESPN led cable primetime among adults 18-49 by a wide margin, as it did in 2019-20, but was down by 14 percent vs. the previous season. Three of the top seven cable outlets in the demo — TBS, Fox News and CNN — improved on last season. CNN’s 112,000-viewer gain in the demo was the biggest by far on ad-supported TV.
Here are the top seven cable outlets for the season.
|vs. 2019-20||-114,000 (-14%)||+4,000 (1%)||-63,000 (-14%)||+112,000 (41%)||+4,000 (+1%)||-120,000 (-27%)||-87,000 (-22%)|
|Total viewers (millions)||Fox News||MSNBC||CNN||ESPN||Hallmark||HGTV||TBS|
|vs. 2019-20||-0.22 (-7%)||+0.24 (+13%)||+0.52 (+39%)||-0.13
|+0.06 (+5%)||-0.06 (-5%)|
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