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.