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The 2020-21 TV season has started in a hole for broadcasters. TV usage in the key ad demographic of adults 18-49 is down by about 20 percent over the first three nights.
For the TV year that just concluded, however, things weren’t quite as bleak. Traditional networks lost viewers, to be sure, and the spring and summer months were rough for most networks as their content pipelines dried up during the coronavirus pandemic. But the early days of the pandemic, when TV viewing surged across all platforms, provided some cushion against those losses and mitigated the overall declines.
Below a breakdown of the network rankings in primetime and some highlights from other dayparts in the TV year that just concluded.
For the 52 weeks that ended Sept. 20, the five English-language broadcast networks averaged a combined 22.15 million viewers in primetime, according to Nielsen’s “most current” averages. Adding the two main Spanish-language outlets, Telemundo and Univision, brings the total to 24.65 million. Both figures are nearly identical to the previous year: 22.22 million for the English-language nets and 24.67 million including Telemundo and Univision.
The demographic numbers are down some, but not catastrophically. The seven-network total in the key ad-sales demo of adults 18-49 — a 5.2 rating, equivalent to about 6.7 million people in that age group — is down by about 7 percent (from 5.6/7.23 million) from 2018-19. Primetime viewing among adults 25-54 came down 5 percent to 8.35 million.
Broadcasters had more trouble reaching younger adults: The seven-network average for 2019-20 was 2.28 million people (a 3.3 rating), down 11 percent from 2.57 million (a 3.7 rating) the previous season.
The individual networks finished the TV year in the same order as they did for the September-to-May season. Fox ranks first among adults 18-49 with a 1.3 rating, thanks in no small part to having the Super Bowl, two cycles of The Masked Singer and strong showings from series like 911 and its spinoff, 911: Lone Star. NBC is two tenths of a point back at 1.1, followed by ABC at 0.9 and CBS at 0.8. Univision (0.5) beat out both Telemundo and The CW, who tied at 0.3, although Telemundo averaged 450,000 viewers in the demo to 330,000 for The CW. Fox and Univision were the only two nets to improve over 2018-19.
In total viewers, CBS finished first for the 11th time in 12 years with 6.27 million viewers, 700,000 more than NBC (5.57 million). Fox (4.74 million) edged ABC (4.63 million) for third place. Univision (1.45 million), Telemundo (1.05 million) and The CW (940,000) round out the field. As with the 18-49 ratings, Fox and Univision posted gains, while ABC finished the 2019-20 year with an identical viewer average to 2018-19.
For the second consecutive season, CBS’ Late Show With Stephen Colbert scored an across-the-board win in late night, padding its lead in both total viewers and the 18-49 demographic.
The Late Show averaged 3.44 million viewers for the year, leading its 11:35 p.m. competition, NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (1.92 million) and Jimmy Kimmel Live (1.91 million) by better than 1.5 million viewers. It’s the fourth consecutive year atop the total audience rankings for Colbert’s show, which led Tonight by about 1.3 million people.
In the 18-49 demo, The Late Show‘s 532,000 viewers (0.41 rating) was 48,000 more than The Tonight Show‘s 484,000 (0.37). Last year The Late Show‘s margin of victory was just 20,000 viewers.
At 12:35 a.m., NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers maintained a narrow lead over CBS’ Late Late Show With James Corden in both total viewers (1.22 million to 1.13 million) and adults 18-49 (0.22 vs. 0.18). ABC’s Nightline led them both; the half-hour news show averaged 1.35 million viewers and a 0.23 in the demo. The first year of NBC’s A Little Late With Lilly Singh averaged 618,000 viewers at 1:35 a.m.
ABC’s World News Tonight hit a milestone in the network evening news rankings. Not only did the David Muir-led newscast win every week of the season in total viewers, adults 18-49 and the key news demo of adults 25-54 — its first season sweep of those three measures in 25 years — but it also led every single night of the past 52 weeks in total viewers. That’s a first since the advent of Nielsen’s electronic database in 1991-92.
World News Tonight averaged 9.39 million viewers to 8.27 million for the NBC Nightly News and 5.86 million for the CBS Evening News. For a three-month stretch over the summer, it was also the most watched program on Nielsen-measured TV regardless of daypart.
CBS kept its stranglehold on daytime, leading ABC by about 1.25 million people (3.46 million to 2.21 million). The network has led daytime for 34 consecutive years — since the Reagan administration.
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