Define The Biggest TV Show In The U.S. - Then Ask Viewers

How do you define what is a big TV show these days? High ratings, the number of “likes,” social-media mentions, a big press following? Best not hold your breath — or strain your sensitive TV eyes.

Top-rated scripted entertainment TV shows -- the biggest regular schedule TV series — can be roughly around 11 million to 13 million viewers. Last season, CBS’ “NCIS” averaged 12.6 million viewers in the Nielsen L7 measure — the top entertainment TV series. Top prime-time TV viewing has been, of course, dropping over recent years.

But my curiosity was tweaked by a recent New York Times headline: “Can TV Get Big Again?" It was used as a tease for “Game of Thrones,” the recently ended HBO show, which had a fanatical following.

In its eighth and final season in 2019, it averaged around 12 million viewers, which doesn’t sound all that impressive, except in the context that HBO, the premium cable channel, only had around 40 million subscribers that year.



The most interesting data point was the illegal activity for the show: For example, the premiere of its final season episode, "Winterfell," was pirated 54 million times in 24 hours, according to Business Insider.

Previously, we might be talking about top shows just by examining high-profile popular cultural measures, such as what shows made it onto the cover of big magazines of the past — Time, Newsweek, etc. In this category, think about shows like “Friends,” “American Idol,” “Roseanne,” “Seinfeld,” “Cheers” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

But the new definition of a top show? For the better part of the last decade, NBC says it has been its NFL’s “Sunday Night Football,” averaging around 20 million viewers or so.

The new streaming environment for non-sports entertainment/unscripted TV has a different measure. Netflix’s “Stranger Things” or “The Crown,” Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” or Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” might be in this category.

Amidst all of this, Nielsen says 20% of total TV viewing is on streaming services, with the rest coming from regular over-the-air television and cable TV networks. Yes, streaming is growing. But is it dominating per individual TV series on a week-to-week basis? And does that matter?

Complicated questions, for sure. Perhaps no longer worth consideration in a country where popular culture/entertainment can cater to scores of different audience groups in an exponential number of time periods and access points — all with different levels of episode consumption screened at one sitting.

Are you looking for a singular TV entertainment series that captures the whole country’s attention at the same moment in time? I don’t see it.

1 comment about "Define The Biggest TV Show In The U.S. - Then Ask Viewers".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 15, 2021 at 10:22 a.m.

    Interesting question, Wayne. We should bear in mind that Nielsen's average commercial minute "viewer" projections do not tell us how many people watched a particular episode of a TV show. If Nielsen projects a commercial minute figure of 10 million, chances are that the number of people who watched that installment but zapped the commercials as well as those who watched only portions of the show, plus the digital audience  was also about 10 million. Meaning that  program audiences are considerably larger than the Nielsen reports---which provide only time buying metrics---- are telling us.

Next story loading loading..