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Ratings breakouts are the unicorns of the Nielsen-measured TV world, and are ever harder to find in a time when 500 scripted series and hundreds more unscripted shows premiere in a year.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t some to be found in 2018. They just weren’t as easy to spot as in years past.
Here are The Hollywood Reporter‘s ratings winners and losers for 2018. The lists below necessarily exclude streaming shows, as they don’t report viewership metrics and tracking by Nielsen and other third-party services is only sporadically made public.
The NFL: The nation’s biggest pro-sports league has stopped two years of ratings declines. In the regular season, NFL games across all its TV partners — CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN and NFL Network — averaged 15.76 million viewers, up 5 percent from the 2017 season. The NFL was easily the top draw on broadcast TV even in its recent down period, but as most entertainment programming has declined (see below), the rebound makes football’s relative position that much stronger.
Manifest, New Amsterdam and The Conners: NBC’s two rookie dramas and ABC’s Roseanne spinoff are the only first-year series of the fall averaging above a 2.0 rating in the key adults 18-49 demographic (after a week of delayed viewing).
Killing Eve and Doctor Who: In the spring, BBC America found a breakout in Killing Eve, which grew its audience every week it was on — the finale had double the 18-49 audience and 86 percent more viewers (in live plus three-day ratings) than the premiere. The fall brought the first Doctor played by a woman in Jodie Whittaker and gains of 20 percent in viewers over its previous season and 46 percent in adults 18-49, fueled by a doubling of its rating among women 18-34.
Chicago Fire and Bob’s Burgers: Fueled by time-period changes, the two shows are the only returning broadcast series (excluding sports and news) to increase their same-day adults 18-49 ratings by more than a tenth of a point versus last season. Chicago Fire is up by 0.23 on NBC, and Bob’s Burgers has grown by 0.21.
Dirty John: The premiere of Bravo’s limited series was the cabler’s top scripted telecast ever — until its second episode. Like Killing Eve, Dirty John has grown through each of its first four outings, with episode four drawing 29 percent more viewers (2.69 million) than the 2.09 million for the series premiere.
Last Man Standing: Cancellation was arguably the best thing that could have happened to the Tim Allen sitcom. A year after ABC dropped the show — which was produced by a then-outside studio, 20th Century Fox TV — Fox picked it up and has seen it improve on its 2016-17 ratings, with an assist from heavy promotion in the network’s Thursday Night Football broadcasts.
Sharp Objects: HBO’s limited series was not exactly an easy watch, but it drew in lots of viewers nonetheless. Across platforms, the Amy Adams-led drama averaged better than 7 million weekly viewers.
Who Is America? and Escape at Dannemora: Sacha Baron Cohen’s guerrilla comedy series was a controversy magnet, and it also brought in lots of eyeballs with 3.4 million multiplatform viewers per episode.Escape at Dannemora is Showtime’s biggest limited series ever, clocking 3.5 million weekly viewers.
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert: CBS’ late-night flagship has led its 11:35 p.m. rivals in total viewers for a year. It’s also in a virtual tie with The Tonight Show for the lead among adults 18-49, the closest The Late Show has ever been in Colbert’s tenure.
Yellowstone: The launch of Paramount Network has been a mixed bag, to say the least, but it had an unqualified success in Yellowstone. The Kevin Costner-led drama averaged 5 million weekly viewers, second only to The Walking Dead among series on ad-supported cable in 2018.
Veteran broadcast series not named Chicago Fire and Bob’s Burgers: Excluding news and sports programs, 51 of 62 returning broadcast series have declined from their 2017-18 averages in adults 18-49 (live plus same-day). Nine others are within a 0.1 of last season’s averages, and since ratings tend to tail off in the latter part of a season, most of those will likely end up down when the season is complete.
The Walking Dead: To be fair, The Walking Dead is still the top show on cable (NFL games aside) by a sizable margin. But it has also hemorrhaged viewers in the past year, falling by more than 60 percent in adults 18-49 and by more than half in viewers from season seven to season nine. It recorded all-time lows in the 18-49 demo twice during its fall run.
Awards shows: In 2018, the Oscars, the Grammys and the Emmys all recorded all-time lows in at least one measure of viewership, as did the American Music Awards and CMA Awards. (The Golden Globes declined some but weren’t as badly affected.) Awards shows are still good bets relative to the rest of the broadcast landscape, but they aren’t the behemoths they once were.
Heathers: The remake of the 1988 cult film suffered through multiple stops and starts before an edited version was scheduled to air across five consecutive nights in October on Paramount. Even that plan was interrupted by real-life events, and when episodes finally did air, hardly anyone watched: it averaged under 100,000 viewers.
The Alec Baldwin Show: The dubious distinction of the lowest-rated show on the big four networks in the fall belongs to Baldwin’s Sunday-night talker on ABC. The show fell flat in its debut and never recovered. It’s currently being burned off on Saturday nights.
Broadcast reboots and revivals: Both the retooled Magnum P.I. and the revived Murphy Brown are pulling below network-average numbers for CBS. NBC’s Will & Grace is down by almost 50 percent year to year. Only The CW’s Charmed is pulling down numbers in line with the network average.
Jan. 2, 9:23 a.m. Updated with final NFL regular-season averages.
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