TV Tallies: The Most-Watched Shows of 2020-21

By Kathleen Thompson  | 

The country is experiencing a reboot. Vigorous vaccination rollouts may have 70 percent of the adult population inoculated against Covid-19 by end of summer, and some states are celebrating their reopening with public gatherings and the lifting of mask mandates. Television is likewise poised to make a comeback. In Los Angeles, shows like Netflix’s Colin in Black & White, Showtime’s Shameless and CBS’ NCIS: Los Angeles contributed to a 50 percent spike in total shoot days during the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same time last year, thanks to receding infection rates. Still, there’s no doubt TV took a hit when live programming virtually disappeared and shutdowns interrupted filming on scripted shows. The most recent television season ran from September 21, 2020 to May 26, 2021. As it came to a close, Nielsen ratings captured data on which networks fared well and what shows were most watched. Here’s what they learned.

Network Numbers
In keeping with last year’s numbers, CBS once again scored top marks as the most-watched network on broadcast primetime for the 13th year running, averaging a total of 6.3 million viewers, which was roughly 900,000 more than runner-up NBC. Fox held firm to its title of top-rated network among consumers ages 18 to 49, with a 1.1 rating, or roughly 1.38 million viewers in that demographic. That’s due in part to its Super Bowl airing in 2020, which was watched by over 102 million fans, making it the 11th most-watched show in TV history. Though viewership numbers were down for all outlets compared to the 2019-20 season, results weren’t fully doom and gloom. CBS provided nine of last season’s top 20 most-watched programs, followed by NBC with six entries and Fox with three offerings. Cable providers benefitted from the presidential election, with Fox News (2.95 million viewers), MSNBC (2.15 million viewers) and CNN (1.86 million viewers) securing the top three primetime slots.

Solid Show Performances
Queen Latifah proved once again why she rules the airwaves. The Equalizer, a CBS crime thriller in which she stars, was the top-watched new series of the year among all related linear TV content, and the second most-watched entertainment program behind live sports. This remake of the 1980s franchise commanded an average of 12.36 million viewers and over 20 million viewers on debut day—a feat that may have been helped by the fact that it premiered immediately after Super Bowl LV in February.

Actor and comedian Ken Jeong is to thank for two additional network wins. He serves as a judge on Fox’s The Masked Singer, which ranked as broadcast TV’s top-rated entertainment show among 18 to 49-year-olds. He also hosts I Can See Your Voice, Fox’s Masked Singer spinoff that was among the season’s top five new series.

On HBO, two limited-series crime thrillers enjoyed week-over-week viewership gains. The Undoing, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as an elite New York City couple whose life unravels after a series of shocking revelations, commanded the largest single-night audience for the network in over a year. After premiering in October, it ended with 13 million cross-platform viewers. Mare of Easttown, meanwhile, features Kate Winslet in the title role of a small-town cop solving a set of big cases. It drew an audience of four million viewers over Memorial Day weekend, and its finale broke records as the most-watched episode of an HBO original show.

Top-Rated Programs
It’s perhaps no surprise that Sunday Night Football proved to be TV’s biggest winner, once again claiming coveted titles as it typically does each year on NBC. Last season it placed number one among adults ages 18 to 49 with a 4.7 rating while also snagging the top viewership spot, at 16.5 million spectators. Fox’s Thursday Night Football followed hot on those heels, delivering 3.9 ratings among the adult demographic. In non-sports related news, CBS’s NCIS averaged 12.6 million viewers, making it last season’ most-watched drama. After launching eight new scripted shows in the 2019-20 season, CBS cancelled only three of them last year, which counts as a win during unprecedented Covid times. Along with The Equalizer and NCIS, Young Sheldon was renewed for at least another year after claiming the comedy prize with a 1.2 rating. Like many pandemic-related changes, our TV-viewing habits may never return to old world times. But as America continues its reawakening, there’s much to get excited about—including the future of linear television.

Kathleen Thompson
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