Most Popular TV Shows of 2020-21: Winners and Losers

CBS clearly knew what it was doing when it decided to launch Queen Latifah’s “Equalizer” reboot behind Super Bowl LV in February. Despite a lopsided game that forced a lot of viewers to tune out before the after-show, CBS nonetheless managed to open “Equalizer” with 20.4 million viewers, and continue to hold on to a sizable percentage of that audience through the end of its freshman season.

The networks used to regularly premiere new shows behind the Super Bowl, but mostly gave up on that practice by the mid-1990s after several flops. But “Equalizer” was a reminder that it can still work — with the right show. “Equalizer” has the distinction of the season’s top-rated new series among adults 18-49 (1.9 rating) and total viewers (12.7 million).

As another unusual, COVID-compromised TV season comes to a close on Wednesday, Variety has once again compiled the list of the most-watched TV shows of the year, in both total viewers and adults 18-49. If these don’t look like great numbers, well, it’s 2021. There’s no such thing as great numbers anymore.

Every time another TV phenomenon ends its run — think “Game of Thrones” or “The Big Bang Theory” — nothing that large takes its place. And although one-time ratings behemoths “American Idol” and “The Walking Dead” still roam among us, those shows’ best days are long behind them.

Really, we could use that “best days behind them” line for just about all of broadcast and cable (except perhaps that “90 Day Fiancé” franchise. More on that in a moment.) Compiling this chart every May is like an annual reminder of one’s own mortality, let alone the TV business’ frailty. The networks can still do good things, and every once in a while can open a show like “Equalizer” or “The Masked Singer” — but the downward ratings trend of live, or even live-plus-time-shifted viewers, is never going to rebound. People just don’t watch TV this way anymore. Some of the shows on this list have tremendous viewership in the aftermarket, while others are just duds.

But without any other legitimate or universally agreed-upon yardstick, this is still the best way to measure some sort of success or failure in linear TV. Just like they call journalism the “first draft of history,” so goes the first round of ratings. They may not tell the ultimate story, but they give us an initial idea of whether audiences might be willing to sample the show down the road — or if said show is DOA. Take a look at this year’s list and you’ll have a better idea why some of this year’s network offerings, even the ones that just premiered, were hastily canceled. Even in a world where broadcasters are practicing much more patience than they used to before axing a series, sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and throw a complete miss back out to sea.

Here’s a final look at some of the hits and misses of 2020–2021, followed by our complete list of the 100 most-watched shows of the season, according to both adults 18-49 and total viewers, using the most recent live+7 ratings (which include seven days’ worth of DVR and video on-demand usage).

WINNERS

“Equalizer” (CBS): All hail the Queen. As mentioned above, thanks to that plum post-Super Bowl slot, “Equalizer” is the most-watched new series of the year in linear TV — and the second-most watched entertainment program.

Ken Jeong: The comedian has become a huge part of Fox’s lineup, and he’s also involved with the two top-20 unscripted series. “The Masked Singer,” of which Jeong is a panelist, ranked No. 4 this year (tied with “This Is Us”), while “I Can See Your Voice,” which Jeong hosts, is tied at No. 19. Jeong’s third appearance in the top 100 is for “The Masked Dancer,” on which he was also a panelist.

“Curse of Oak Island” (History): Every year we put together this chart and mutter the same thing to ourselves: “What is ‘Curse of Oak Island’?” And every year we Google it and re-discover the rabid popularity of the treasure hunters off of Nova Scotia. This year, it’s the most-watched cable entertainment series of the year.

TLC: Perhaps they should go wall-to-wall “90 Day Fiancé” on TLC, given the continued success of the franchise. And actually, they sort of have, with countless offshoot series, all doing so well. This year, the network’s “90 Day Fiancé Happily Ever After: Tell All,” “90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way,” “90 Day Fiancé: Tell All” and the original recipe “90 Day Fiancé” are among the top-rated cable series of the year in adults 18-49. Also, what is “Darcey & Stacey,” you might ask? Why, it’s a spinoff of the “90 Day” franchise, of course!

LOSERS

Comedy: Once again, as half-hours continue to disappear from the primetime schedules, there isn’t much to get excited about. The top 30 with adults 18-49 boasts just three sitcoms: “Young Sheldon,” “The Conners” and “The Neighborhood.” But throw in animation, and at least “South Park” managed to make it to No. 15 — but with an asterisk (that’s based on just two episodes).

“American Housewife,” “MacGyver”: While we still await the fates of several shows, including NBC’s “Manifest,” for now the ABC comedy “American Housewife” is the top-rated show in adults 18-49 to get an unexpected cancellation, while “MacGyver” right now is the most-watched surprise cancellation in total viewers.

Linear TV: Sigh. How low can these numbers go?

THE 100 TOP-RATED SERIES OF 2020-2021 (ADULTS 18-49)

Rank PROGRAM (NETWORK) RATING /SHARE 18-49 VIEWER (000)
1. NFL Sunday Night Football (NBC) 4.8/26 6,216
2. NFL Thursday Night Football (Fox/NFL) 3.9/23 5,008
3. NFL Monday Night Football (ESPN) 3.5/20 4,494
4. This Is Us (NBC) 2.0/13 2,636
The Masked Singer (Fox) 2.0/13 2,599
6. Grey’s Anatomy (ABC) 1.9/12 2,519
NFL Thursday Night Football (NFL) 1.9/12 2,491
Equalizer (CBS) 1.9/12 2,442
9. 9-1-1 (Fox) 1.8/11 2,319
The Bachelorette (ABC) 1.8/10 2,308
The Bachelor (ABC) 1.8/11 2,283
12. Law & Order: Organized Crime (NBC) 1.7/12 2,136
13. Chicago P.D. (NBC) 1.6/12 2,124
Chicago Fire (NBC) 1.6/10 2,037
15. 9-1-1: Lone Star (Fox) 1.5/9 1,988
South Park (Comedy Central) 1.5/9 1,931
17. Law & Order: SVU (NBC) 1.4/9 1,835
Chicago Med (NBC) 1.4/8 1,829
19. FBI (CBS) 1.3/8 1,678
I Can See Your Voice (Fox) 1.3/7 1,646
The Good Doctor (ABC) 1.3/8 1,646
Station 19 (ABC) 1.3/8 1,645
NCIS (CBS) 1.3/8 1,633
24. 60 Minutes (CBS) 1.2/7 1,596
The Voice-Tuesday (NBC) 1.2/7 1,574
Big Sky (ABC) 1.2/8 1,527
The Voice-Monday (NBC) 1.2/7 1,527
Dancing with the Stars (ABC) 1.2/6 1,515
Young Sheldon (CBS) 1.2/8 1,513
30. American Idol (ABC) 1.1/7 1,487
90 Day Fiancé Happily Ever After: Tell All (TLC) 1.1/6 1,466
The Walking Dead (AMC) 1.1/7 1,445
The Conners (ABC) 1.1/7 1,439
90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way (TLC) 1.1/6 1,339
The Amazing Race (CBS) 1.1/6 1,359
Hell’s Kitchen (Fox) 1.1/7 1,372
The Neighborhood (CBS) 1.1/7 1,366
38. Celebrity Wheel of Fortune (ABC) 1.0/7 1,336
A Million Little Things (ABC) 1.0/7 1,324
90 Day Fiancé: Tell All (TLC) 1.0/7 1,308
FBI: Most Wanted (CBS) 1.0/7 1,303
90 Day Fiancé (TLC) 1.0/6 1,293
New Amsterdam (NBC) 1.0/7 1,280
The Rookie (ABC) 1.0/7 1,279
The Resident (Fox) 1.0/6 1,262
46. Manifest (NBC) 0.9/7 1,228
Supermarket Sweep (ABC) 0.9/5 1,225
Saturday Night Football (ABC) 0.9/6 1,221
Call Me Kat (Fox) 0.9/6 1,219
Below Deck Mediterranean (Bravo) 0.9/5 1,216
American Idol-Monday (ABC) 0.9/6 1,211
Mom (CBS) 0.9/6 1,203
The Masked Dancer (Fox) 0.9/5 1,198
The Goldbergs (ABC) 0.9/6 1,189
Family Guy (Fox) 0.9/5 1,185
Blue Bloods (CBS) 0.9/7 1,181
S.W.A.T. (CBS) 0.9/6 1,178
Shark Tank (ABC) 0.9/7 1,177
Curse of Oak Island (History) 0.9/6 1,150
NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS) 0.9/5 1,144
Seal Team (CBS) 0.9/6 1,144
Young Rock (NBC) 0.9/6 1,136
The Simpsons (Fox) 0.9/5 1,132
The Challenge: Double Agents (MTV) 0.9/6 1,126
Below Deck (Bravo) 0.9/5 1,118
American Housewife (ABC) 0.9/5 1,108
Celebrity Family Feud (ABC) 0.9/5 1,107
The Chase (ABC) 0.9/5 1,104
69. Prodigal Son (Fox) 0.8/5 1,094
Bob Hearts Abishola (CBS) 0.8/5 1,087
Clarice (CBS) 0.8/6 1,082
Bull (CBS) 0.8/6 1,079
The Weakest Link (NBC) 0.8/5 1,057
NCIS: New Orleans (CBS) 0.8/5 1,053
Magnum P.I. (CBS) 0.8/6 1,053
Last Man Standing (Fox) 0.8/5 1,032
90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After (TLC) 0.8/5 1,019
Bob’s Burgers (Fox) 0.8/4 984
B Positive (CBS) 0.8/5 983
Mr. Mayor (NBC) 0.8/5 982
America’s Funniest Home Videos (ABC) 0.8/5 976
82. Jersey Shore: Family Vacation S4 (MTV) 0.7/5 968
60 Minutes Presents (CBS) 0.7/6 959
Superstore (NBC) 0.7/5 957
Real Housewives of Orange County (Bravo) 0.7/4 950
Name That Tune (Fox) 0.7/4 950
Rebel (ABC) 0.7/5 950
WWE Friday Night Smackdown (Fox) 0.7/5 946
Good Girls (NBC) 0.7/5 933
The Unicorn (CBS) 0.7/5 928
MacGyver (CBS) 0.7/5 927
The Blacklist (NBC) 0.7/5 925
Teen Mom II S10 (MTV) 0.7/4 922
Game of Talents (Fox) 0.7/5 916
Home Economics (ABC) 0.7/5 914
Real Housewives of Atlanta (Bravo) 0.7/4 901
Real Housewives of New Jersey (Bravo) 0.7/5 898
Darcey & Stacey (TLC) 0.7/4 896
To Tell The Truth (ABC) 0.7/5 896
Debris (NBC) 0.7/5 895
Paramount Plus Challenge Sneak (MTV) 0.7/5 892
All Rise (CBS) 0.7/4 890
Transplant (NBC) 0.7/5 887
For Life (ABC) 0.7/5 878
Press Your Luck (ABC) 0.7/4 877
20/20 (ABC) 0.7/5 877
Black-ish (ABC) 0.7/4 867
United States of Al (CBS) 0.7/4 861
WWE Monday Night Raw (USA) 0.7/4 847
Gold Rush (Discovery) 0.7/4 842
Source: Nielsen. 09-21-2020 – 05-19-2021. Preliminary Live+7 Days, Prime, Original telecasts only. Top 100 shown based on A18-49. Excludes: Sports commentary; specials (special sports events also excluded, such as playoffs, finals, NFL draft); Spanish-language programming; childrens’ networks; movies and broadcast programs airing predominantly in Summer 2020 (e.g., AGT, Big Brother, Love Island).

TOP 100 SHOWS OF 2020-2021, TOTAL VIEWERS

America’s most-watched series of the 2020-2021 season are …

Rank Title (Network) VIEWERS (000)
1. NFL Sunday Night Football (NBC) 16,662
2. NFL Thursday Night Football (Fox/NFL Network) 13,418
3. NCIS (CBS) 12,730
4. Equalizer (CBS) 12,686
5. NFL Monday Night Football (ESPN) 11,266
6. FBI (CBS) 11,073
7. 60 Minutes (CBS) 10,881
8. Chicago Fire (NBC) 10,319
9. Blue Bloods (CBS) 10,161
10. Chicago Med (NBC) 9,850
11. 9-1-1 (Fox) 9,819
Chicago PD (NBC) 9,819
13. This Is Us (NBC) 9,477
14. Young Sheldon (CBS) 9,465
15. 9-1-1: Lone Star (Fox) 8,900
16. FBI: Most Wanted (CBS) 8,898
17. The Voice-Tuesday (NBC) 8,699
18. Bull (CBS) 8,640
19. The Voice-Monday (NBC) 8,590
20. Law & Order: Organized Crime (NBC) 8,351
21. The Good Doctor (ABC) 8,304
22. Grey’s Anatomy (ABC) 8,227
23. 60 Minutes Presents (CBS) 8,094
24. NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS) 7,794
25. The Masked Singer (Fox) 7,668
26. Big Sky (ABC) 7,514
27. Magnum P.I. (CBS) 7,481
28. American Idol (ABC) 7,428
29. Dancing with the Stars (ABC) 7,329
30. NCIS: New Orleans (CBS) 7,216
31. Celebrity Wheel of Fortune (ABC) 7,151
32. Station 19 (ABC) 7,141
33. New Amsterdam (NBC) 7,138
34. The Rookie  (ABC) 7,115
35. Mom (CBS) 6,986
36. The Neighborhood (CBS) 6,805
37. Law & Order: SVU (NBC) 6,785
38. Bob Hearts Abishola (CBS) 6,584
39. Seal Team (CBS) 6,526
40. The Bachelor (ABC) 6,461
41. NFL Thursday Night Football (NFL) 6,297
42. American Idol-Monday (ABC) 6,238
43. Clarice (CBS) 6,201
44. United States of Al (CBS) 6,095
45. The Bachelorette (ABC) 6,045
46. S.W.A.T. (CBS) 6,004
47. MacGyver (CBS) 5,897
48. All Rise (CBS) 5,835
49. Celebrity Family Feud (ABC) 5,772
50. Rebel (ABC) 5,735
51. The Resident (Fox) 5,733
52. The Conners (ABC) 5,692
53. B Positive (CBS) 5,691
54. The Chase (ABC) 5,604
55. Manifest (NBC) 5,521
56. The Blacklist (NBC) 5,509
57. A Million Little Things (ABC) 5,492
58. Transplant (NBC) 5,492
59. The Amazing Race (CBS) 5,406
60. America’s Funniest Home Videos (ABC) 5,367
61. The Unicorn (CBS) 5,052
62. Debris (NBC) 5,031
63. Shark Tank (ABC) 5,021
64. I Can See Your Voice (Fox) 4,836
65. Last Man Standing (Fox) 4,655
66. To Tell the Truth (ABC) 4,487
67. Mr. Mayor (NBC) 4,459
68. The Weakest Link (NBC) 4,458
69. The Goldbergs (ABC) 4,427
70. Curse of Oak Island (History) 4,183
71. Call Me Kat (Fox) 4,159
72. 20/20 (ABC) 4,158
73. Prodigal Son (Fox) 4,154
74. Dateline Friday (NBC) 4,151
75. American Housewife (ABC) 4,022
76. Supermarket Sweep (ABC) 3,875
77. The Masked Dancer (Fox) 3,874
78. Saturday Night Football (ABC) 3,867
79. Dateline Monday (NBC) 3,853
80. Young Rock (NBC) 3,847
81. Tough as Nails (CBS) 3,843
82. Press Your Luck (ABC) 3,831
83. 90 Day Fiancé Happily Ever After: Tell All (TLC) 3,817
84. Hell’s Kitchen (Fox) 3,794
85. Emergency Call (ABC) 3,763
86. Dateline Thursday (NBC) 3,762
87. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (ABC) 3,735
88. The Walking Dead (AMC) 3,711
89. Home Economics (ABC) 3,659
90. Call Your Mother (ABC) 3,625
91. American Ninja Warrior (NBC) 3,613
92. 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way (NBC) 3,580
93. The Wall (NBC) 3,468
94. Match Game (ABC) 3,438
95. The Hustler (ABC) 3,436
96. Name That Tune (Fox) 3,280
97. 90 Day Fiancé: Tell All (TLC) 3,217
98. Black-ish (ABC) 3,207
99. For Life (ABC) 3,203
100. 90 Day Fiancé (TLC) 3,141
Source: Nielsen. 09-21-2020 – 05-19-2021. Preliminary Live+7 Days, Prime, Original telecasts only. Top 100 shown based on A18-49. Excludes: Sports commentary; specials (special sports events also excluded, such as playoffs, finals, NFL draft); Spanish-language programming; childrens’ networks; movies and broadcast programs airing predominantly in Summer 2020 (e.g., AGT, Big Brother, Love Island).

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