In a year that showed massive shifts in viewer habits, shows that broke out in traditional ratings are that much more notable.
The past year has brought into stark relief the massive changes in the way people watch television.
Traditional ratings metrics have continued their decade-long slide (unless the show involves NFL teams), and networks have begun touting their digital numbers. Streaming data, however, is still hard to come by and incomplete, whether it comes from internal (Netflix’s “view” stats for a handful of shows) or external (Nielsen’s SVOD ratings, which only measure TV-set viewing) sources.
What’s not hard to suss out, though, is that it’s so easy to watch so much content at any time, that the traditional primetime schedule matters less than it has. So when a show does break through in traditional ratings, it’s even more notable.
Below is a look at the highs and lows of the past 12 months. All ratings figures include a week of delayed viewing unless otherwise noted.
Game of Thrones: The final season had more than its share of detractors, but regardless, people watched in droves. The show had its highest-rated Nielsen season ever, with more than 15 million viewers per episode. Over the course of its six-week run, HBO says more than 44 million people watched.
Stranger Things: Whether it’s Netflix’s own measurement, with the company saying season three was its biggest original series to date, or Nielsen ratings that said it improved by 21 percent in its first week over season two, the show matched its considerable hype.
The Masked Singer: The only true new hit on the broadcast networks in 2019 was this wackadoo take on the singing competition. An adaptation of a South Korean show, the outlandish costumes and celebrity reveals propelled the Fox show to the top of the ratings in both of its cycles so far. The fall run’s 3.1 rating among adults 18-49 was more than twice the average for all broadcast series.
911: Fueled by a big three-part season opener in which a tsunami hit Santa Monica, the Fox drama is among the very few broadcast series currently running ahead of its year-ago average. It’s averaging 10.46 million viewers, about 400,000 more than 2018-19, and is even in adults 18-49 at 2.4.
Below Deck Mediterranean: The Bravo show’s fourth season was its biggest so far, posting series highs in total viewers and posting the biggest growth among adults 18-49 of any cable series of its age (the show debuted in 2016) or older. Bravo as a whole is poised to finish 2019 as the No. 5 cable network in the 18-49 demo, its highest ranking ever, and first among women 18-49 in primetime for the third straight year.
The NFL: After a two-year slide in 2016 and ’17, the dominant sports property on TV has improved each of the last two seasons. With a week left in the regular season, the league’s games are up about 5 percent over 2018, with every broadcast window posting year-to-year gains.
Digital platforms: It’s not just Netflix, or Disney+, or Apple TV+ siphoning away viewers from traditional outlets. Based on digital numbers provided by some networks, their shows may receive as much as half their audience over five weeks from streaming: The season premiere of This Is Us added 5 million viewers via digital vs. its 35-day linear audience. Grey’s Anatomy grew by 6 million thanks to digital viewing, and more than doubled its 35-day, TV-only rating in adults 18-49. The majority of the audience for Fox’s animated comedies watches on other platforms.
Appointment viewing: Aside from live sports and the occasional big event like the Oscars (which stopped a four-year slide in 2019), it was extremely rare to find a show that averaged as much as 10 million viewers for its initial airing. How rare? In the calendar year, Game of Thrones, The Big Bang Theory, NCIS and Young Sheldon (barely) were the only regular series that managed to average 10 million same-day viewers.
The Emmy and Tony Awards: While the other big awards shows — the Oscars, Grammys and Golden Globes — managed to halt multi-year ratings slides in 2019, the Emmys and Tonys both reached all-time lows. Fox’s Emmy telecast in September cratered, dropping 30 percent in both viewers and the 18-49 demo, while the Tonys fell 20 percent in the demo and 14 percent in viewers on CBS in June.
The NBA: The league suffered a ratings hit with the NBA Finals in June, thanks in no small part to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors’ home market being in Canada, and thus not counted in the Nielsen ratings (the audience north of the border was sizable). The first two months of the regular season took a ratings hit as well, with injuries to several star players and marquee teams not scheduled often for national TV driving audiences down.
Sunnyside: The NBC comedy lasted only three episodes on air, where it was the lowest-rated show of the fall on the big four broadcast networks. The remainder of the season has aired on the network’s digital platforms and on Hulu, and the network has said it will evaluate the show’s performance there before making a decision on its future, but in an era when networks are increasingly patient with shows, it’s uncommon to see a series pulled after so few episodes.
The fall’s first-year class: The crop of rookie shows has produced a couple critical favorites in CBS’ Evil and ABC’s Emergence, both of which are also performing decently (particularly in delayed viewing). ABC’s Stumptown, CBS’ The Unicorn and Bob Hearts Abishola and Fox’s Prodigal Son are also putting up respectable numbers. But none of them has truly broken out: fewer than half of the 17 shows to debut this fall are above the all-network average in either viewers or adults 18-49.