Most Viewed, Binged TV Shows Are Not The Ones You Think

Among adults 25-54, "The Big Bang Theory" on TBS is the most watched prime-time scripted series on television. Among adults 18-49, AMC’s "The Walking Dead" holds that distinction – at least during the 4thquarter (among all series, NBC’s "Sunday Night Football" and ESPN’s "Monday Night Football" were the most viewed).

Ordinarily, average ratings are used to determine which shows are the most popular and to set pricing for individual commercials. While that makes perfect sense for the buying and selling of commercial time on individual program telecasts, it does not provide a true indication of which series are actually the most watched.

Because different networks have significantly different programming strategies and financial models, you can make the case that comparing ABC’s "Scandal" (with 9 telecasts during the 4th quarter), FX’s "American Horror Story (22 telecasts – including repeats), and USA’s "Modern Family" (251 telecasts – all off-network repeats), is like comparing apples to oranges to tangerines.



Nevertheless, time spent viewing is certainly a valid measure of popularity, which keeps every show, regardless of venue or platform, on the same benchmark. Nielsen doesn’t readily provide time spent viewing data by program, but it is easy to calculate.

NBC’s "Chicago Fire," for example, has an average rating among adults 18-49 almost four times as high as TBS’ "Big Bang Theory," but the average adult 18-49 spends nearly four times as much time watching the TBS off-network comedy.

During this past fourth quarter,  the 15 most-viewed scripted series on television among adults 18-49 were, "The Walking Dead" (AMC), "The Big Bang Theory" (TBS), "Family Guy" (Adult Swim), "Empire" (Fox), "Criminal Minds" (ION), "American Horror Story" (FX), "American Dad" (Adult Swim), "The Simpsons" (FXX), "Modern Family" (USA), NCIS (USA), "Blindspot" (NBC), "Scandal" (ABC), "South Park" (Comedy Central), "Scorpion" (CBS), and NCIS (CBS).

Ironically, Netflix, the viewing source that gave binge viewing its name, probably has less binge viewing than any cable network with stacked programming (i.e., programming that airs multiple episode in a row).  I would think viewers spend much more time every month watching "Modern Family" and "NCIS" on USA, "Criminal Minds" on ION or "Big Bang Theory" on TBS than they do watching any single series on Netflix.  If that is not the case, I’d love to see the data.

An upcoming issue of The "Sternberg Report – Premium Edition" will take a deeper look into this subject among both adults 18-49 and 25-54 for all broadcast and cable series, including the data that went into the time spent viewing calculations.



8 comments about "Most Viewed, Binged TV Shows Are Not The Ones You Think ".
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  1. dorothy higgins from Mediabrands WW, February 25, 2016 at 1:42 p.m.

    Or for a program that is broadcast back to back, M-F, during the 7-8PM hour may be just background noise that pulls in lots of viewing but actually very little ""viewing" with any level of engagement.  

  2. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report, February 25, 2016 at 2:31 p.m.

    I've done a fair amount of research that indicates engagement levels not lower for m-f back-to-back off-network series.

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, February 25, 2016 at 3:28 p.m.

    As with primetime and other dayparts, it really depends on the content. In general, M-F off-network shows generate somewhat lower attentiveness levels than prmetime originals, in part because a certain percentage---perhaps 20-30% --of the viewers have seen the episode before. Also, and not surprisingly, a serious drama will garner more attentive audiences than a silly sitcom, rerun or not. The differences are not huge, however---probably on the order of 25% between the highs and lows. All of this is covered in some detail in Media Dynamics' annual, "TV Dimensions 2016".

  4. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report, February 25, 2016 at 4:02 p.m.

    You also have the dynamic of most off-network series being viewed live, which increases commercial attentiveness. Attentiveness levels for the ost viewed off-network shows like Big Bang Theory on TBS are no lower than original comedies.  People view them over and over again because they are comfort food and they enjoy watching them - not to just have them on as background noise.

  5. dorothy higgins from Mediabrands WW, February 25, 2016 at 4:52 p.m.

    We desperately need more current research on attentiveness, engagement etc.  I wish some of energy behind the run to programmatic linear TV was focused on this.  I also wish to be richer and thinner.  If wishes were horses beggars would ride. 

  6. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, February 25, 2016 at 5:24 p.m.

    Dorothy, we do have ongoing program content recall and ad recall studies from Nielsen's Brand Effect service as well as TVQ program liking data and viewer attentiveness scores from GFK-MRI and Simmons on a large number of nationally-aired TV shows. The problem is that the findings are rarely studied by those actually making the buys, as opposed to the planners who are shut out of the buying process in many cases. Until media planning and TV time buying are fully integrated---and don't hold your breath on this one-----the buys will continue to go down strictly by the audience stats---carried down to the last decimal point.

  7. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report replied, February 25, 2016 at 5:42 p.m.

    Ed, Nielsn's Brand Effect is an example of mediocrity in research that we should all resist using.  TV Attentiveness scores from GFK-MRI are only  marginally better (or is it marginally worse?).  Good research in this area is possible, but you need people who know how to do it.  Simply repackaging dubious research from IAG into another name does little to advance good research practices.

  8. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, February 26, 2016 at 7:12 a.m.

    Steve, we have to be realistic in our expectations and use what we have rather than pleading for "better" research that never materializes since no one is willing to pay for it and even if available, the buyers won't use it. As you may know, I started the first syndicated viewer attentiveness studies---using personal diaries via Simmons---many years ago and even though I recognized the flaws in this methodology, it was all we could get and proved very useful---if used with some caution. The same point applies to Nielsen's---actually IAG--Brand Effect research and the other sources I mentioned. Add to these dial switching studies and other electronic indicators of audience involvement and you have a wealth of individually imperfect information to ponder. When most or all of the indicators point in the same direction---as often happens----you can make sensible distinctions between programs or program genres---in my opinion.

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