Year In Review: Most-Watched Television Networks — Ranking 2020’s Winners and Losers

Year In Review: Most-Watched Television Networks — Ranking 2020’s Winners and Losers

Yes, linear TV still exists, and it’s still watched by millions of viewers. But 2020 was another tipping point for traditional television, and it’s not just because of the pandemic. What has been steady viewership erosion for broadcast and cable went into overdrive this year, despite a pandemic that should have increased or at least stabilized viewership.

Anecdotally, people did watch more TV as they stayed at home this year — but they were either watching news, or catching their favorite shows on demand.

In recent years, the joke within the TV industry was “flat is the new up” — meaning that ratings growth is so difficult that it’s a victory just to hold the status quo and not decline. But even remaining flat is nearly impossible these days, let alone just small decreases — which is why the new saying should probably be, “single-digit declines are the new up!”

But the truth is, as this bruising year comes to a close, most major broadcast, cable and pay networks suffered another round of double-digit drops. And that’s including seven days of DVR and VOD time-shifting. Of course, there are a few exceptions to the erosion this year; you’ll see them below as Variety recounts the TV winners and losers of 2020.

WINNERS

Cable news

While everyone else braces to see how low they can go, the three major news cablers had a glorious year. No surprise, as the election, pandemic and movement for racial justice gave audiences plenty of reason to tune in. And they did: Fox News was up 43%, MSNBC climbed 23% and CNN jumped 83%. Fox News was even a top 10 network in adults 18-49, despite its older skew, while CNN was up a whopping 95 percent in that demo. Meanwhile, CNN had its most-watched prime time ratings ever in 2020 with both total viewers and the key 25-54 news demo. Fox News, meanwhile, also had its best-ever year, becoming the first-ever cable news network to average more than 3 million viewers in primetime. On the smaller side, even tiny digital offering Newsy went from 3,000 to 8,000 viewers — which, given its tiny base, is a growth of 167%.

Univision

While the English-language broadcast networks nurse double-digit declines, and even rival Telemundo suffered major erosion in 2020, Univision was up 11% with viewers and 6% with the 18-49 crowd.

TLC

Led by the unstoppable franchise “90 Day Fiancé,” which has spawned several spinoffs, TLC did the unthinkable in 2020: It posted its most-watched year in primetime in the history of the network. That just doesn’t happen anymore. And yet, it did for TLC, which ranks No. 1 among cable networks in the key female demos including women 25-54, women 18-49 and women 18-34. “Given what the country faced in 2020, to have further grown and drawn new viewers proves we’re nourishing fans with comfort and emotion they’ve really needed at the right time,” said TLC president/general manager Howard Lee.

Classic TV networks

Are reruns the future of linear TV? Me TV is up another 7% in viewers, while INSP (which airs some originals along with its classic westerns) is up 9%. Also growing are smaller diginets with a diet of old TV, such as Grit (up 6%), Heroes and Icons (up 6%) and Family Entertainment TV (up 5%). “We have a target audience that is generally 50 and older, and in some cases, even 60 and older,” said INSP COO Dale Ardizzone. “And what we have found is that that is an audience that is a relatively underserved niche, and it is what we like to call an audience of cord cuddlers, not cord cutters.”

BOTH

Pop TV

Holy “Schitt’s Creek.” The tremendous frenzy over the show’s final season not only garnered an unbelievable nine Emmys, but also helped grow the network 51% year-to-year (granted, from a super-low 138,000 to 209,000). Too bad the team that built that success is gone, and Pop is pretty much out of the originals business.

ESPN

How big was the channel’s Michael Jordan docuseries “The Last Dance”? All 10 episodes made it onto the year-end top 100 ranker among adults 18-49. That was at least a bright note in a rough year for sports networks, given how many months the pandemic kept all games on hold. In the end, ESPN was down 17% — but without “The Last Dance,” it could have been much worse.

Comedy TV

The Byron Allen channel, which consists mostly of reruns of panel shows featuring comedians, is consistently the least-watched network rated by Nielsen. It maintains that distinction, but with a caveat: MTV Classic wound up not getting a rating at all. And in bigger news, Comedy TV somehow managed to bolster its miniscule rating from 1,000 to 3,000 in primetime. That’s a 200% leap.

LOSERS

Premium networks

Perhaps the most obvious example of the shift to digital and streaming comes from the premium services. Audiences are still watching their shows — but they’re not doing it on linear. Without “Game of Thrones,” HBO saw more than half of its adults 18-49 linear audience disappear in 2020. Starz, Showtime, Starz Encore and Cinemax were hit with huge declines as well.

Kids channels

This new generation of kids will never know what it’s like to watch their shows on a schedule. The steady decline of all kids networks went on overdrive this year, with Disney Channel (-33%), Nickelodeon (-32%), Cartoon Network (-29%), Nick Jr. (-17%), Disney Junior (-27%), Nicktoons (-42%), Teennick (-35%) all down. A few exceptions came from the small network end, with Discovery Family, Universal Kids and Baby First TV posting a touch of growth.

El Rey

Founded by Robert Rodriguez and launched at the end of 2013, El Rey hoped to capitalize on a young, multicultural demographic with programs like “From Dusk till Dawn: The Series” and “Lucha Underground.” But the network wound up getting limited traction, and distribution started to falter — including DirecTV, which dropped it at the start of the year. By fall, the network’s reach dropped to 13 million households (down from a peak of around 40 million), and Univision sold its stake. As a result, the channel was down 76% in viewership this year. El Rey later announced that it would cease operations on Dec. 31.

[For historical record, here are previous year-end network rankers: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.]

THE MOST-WATCHED NETWORKS OF 2020 (BY TOTAL VIEWERS)

Rank
NETWORK
VIEWERS (000)
% CHANGE
1.
CBS
5,603
-21%
2.
NBC
5,025
-20%
3.
ABC
4,522
-12%
4.
Fox
4,157
-10%
5.
Fox News Channel
3,596
+43%
6.
MSNBC
2,135
+23%
7.
CNN
1,790
+83%
8.
ESPN
1,500
-16%
9.
Univision
1,445
+11%
10.
TLC 
1,365
+16%
11.
HGTV
1,360
+5%
12.
Hallmark Channel
1,214
-5%
13.
Ion
1,200
-10%
14.
TBS
1,062
-8%
15.
History
1,054
-12%
16.
Discovery Channel
1,034
-8%
17.
Telemundo
1,003
-16%
18.
TNT
991
-12%
19.
Food Network
952
+1%
20.
USA Network
902
-26%
21.
A&E
822
-22%
22.
Bravo
812
-8%
23.
The CW
811
-26%
24.
Investigation Discovery
770
-22%
25.
Me TV
768
+7%
26.
INSP
674
+9%
27.
Lifetime
671
-5%
28.
Hallmark Movies & Mysteries
639
+9%
29.
AMC 
594
-19%
30.
FX
572
-19%
31.
TV Land 
568
-8%
32.
Freeform
519
-14%
33.
Adult Swim
517
-20%
34.
Nickelodeon
494
-32%
35.
Unimas 
483
+18%
36.
WE TV
475
-2%
37.
Paramount Network
461
-1%
38.
Syfy 
451
-15%
39.
Travel Channel
443
-11%
40.
Nick at Nite 
442
-20%
41.
MTV
440
-27%
42.
GSN 
432
+6%
43.
Animal Planet
414
-10%

Nat Geo
414
-9%
45.
Grit
398
+6%
46.
HBO
387
-38%
47.
BET
379
+3%
48.
Disney Channel
355
-33%
49.
E!
350
-3%
50.
Comedy Central
341
-5%
51.
VH1
337
-37%
52.
Nick Jr. 
332
-17%
53.
Oxygen
314
+5%
54.
Disney Junior
310
-27%
55.
OWN
301
-20%
56.
Science Channel
291
-5%
57.
LMN
281
-14%
58.
Bounce TV
280
+1%
59.
Cartoon Network
274
-29%
60.
Nat Geo Wild
272
+5%
61.
HLN
266
-3%
62.
CNBC
249
+6%
63.
Motor Trend
247
-5%
64.
DIY
245
+21%

NBC Sports Network
245
-26%
66.
BBC America
238
+4%
67.
Fox Sports 1
236
-25%
68.
FXX
233
-15%
69.
CMT
232
+0%
70.
NFL Network 
231
-21%
71.
WGN America
219
-33%
72.
SundanceTV 
212
-2%
73.
Pop TV
209
+49%
74.
Heroes and Icons
208
+6%
75.
ESPN 2 
207
-33%

IFC
207
-5%
77.
Family Entertainment TV
203
+5%
78.
TruTV
197
-20%
79.
Laff
191
-14
80.
Weather Channel
177
-5%
81.
Estrella TV
168
-28%
82.
Cozi 
166
+11%
83.
Start TV
163
+42%
84.
Showtime
147
-19%
85.
Court TV Mystery
146
-5%
86.
Cooking Channel
142
-1%
87.
Up
137
+28%
88.
Newsmax TV
135
n/a
89.
TV One
133
+1%
90.
Galavision
129
+0%

Reelzchannel
129
-12%
92.
FX Movie Channel
125
-7%
93.
FYI
122
+13%

Smithsonian Channel
122
+15%

Starz 
122
-16%
96.
Hallmark Drama 
114
+41%
97.
Fox Business Network 
103
+5%
98.
Charge!
102
n/a
99.
TUDN  
101
-40%
100.
Golf Channel
100
-16%
101.
American Heroes Channel
97
+0%
102.
Disney XD
94
-23%
103.
Destination America
93
+26%

GAC
93
+4%
105.
Boomerang
92
-7%
106.
Comet
87
+13%

Nicktoons
87
-42%

Universo
87
+61%
109.
Discovery en Español
76
+6%

RFD-TV 
76
-16%
111.
MLB Network 
75
-44%

Viceland
75
-10%
113.
Starz Encore
72
-11%
114.
Ovation Network
70
-5%
115.
The Cowboy Channel 
68
n/a
116.
AXS TV 
65
-2%
117.
Big Ten Network 
59
-9%
118.
Discovery Family Channel
58
+9%

Teennick
58
-35%
120.
Azteca
56
-15%
121.
Discovery Life Channel 
55
+6%

MTV 2
55
-24%
123.
ESPNU 
47
-33%
124.
Logo
46
-22%
125.
Telexitos
45
n/a
126.
Fox Deportes
43
-25%
127.
BET Her
41
-15%

Discovery Familia
41
+14%
129.
Cinemax 
40
-38%
130.
TBD TV 
39
n/a
131.
ESPNEWS 
37
+6%

Tennis Network
37
-41%
133.
Baby First TV 
35
+3%
134.
Universal Kids
34
+10%
135.
ESPN Deportes
32
-27%
136.
Cine Latino
29
-9%
137.
Fox Sports Net 2
27
+50%
138.
CNN En Español
25
-4%

Nat Geo Mundo
25
+0%
140.
Fuse 
22
-21%
141.
Pursuit Channel
12
n/a
142.
Justice Central
11
+0%
143.
BEIN Sport Español
9
-18%
144.
Newsy
8
+167%
145.
NBC.LX
7
n/a
146.
El Rey
6
-76%
147.
BEIN Sport
5
+0%
148.
Comedy TV
3
+200%
149.
MTV Classic
n/a
n/a
Source: Nielsen, NPM (12/30/2019-12/06/2020, Live+7 and 12/07/2020-12/22/2020, Live+SD vs. 12/31/2018-12/08/2019, Live+7 and 12/09/2019-12/24/2019, Live+SD) Mon-Sat 8pm-11pm/Sun 7pm-11pm, ad-supported and premium pay networks. Nat Geo Mundo based on NPM-H. Ranked by 2020 Year-To-Date.

THE 50 TOP-RATED NETWORKS OF 2020 (BY ADULTS 18-49)

Rank
NETWORK
18-49 VIEWERS (000)
% CHANGE
1.
Fox
1,423
-12%
2.
NBC
1,240
-28%
3.
ABC
1,170
-20%
4.
CBS
1,025
-30%
5.
ESPN
625
-14%
6.
Univision
577
+6%
7.
TLC
451
+8%
8.
TNT
430
-12%
9.
Fox News
424
+71%
10.
TBS 
415
-14%
11.
Telemundo
411
-24%
12.
CNN
378
+95%
13.
Bravo
348
-16%
14.
USA Network
339
-32%
15.
Food Network
326
-6%
16.
Adult Swim
308
-20%
17.
Discovery Channel 
304
-18%
18.
HGTV
296
-6%
19.
Ion
293
-19%
20.
A&E
290
-28%
21.
MTV
260
-34%
22.
The CW 
252
-40%
23.
MSNBC
242
+28%
24.
History
239
-23%
25.
FX
235
-25%
26.
Freeform
230
-18%
27.
Unimas
228
+21%
28.
Investigation Discovery
219
-22%
29.
AMC 
210
-24%
30.
Comedy Central
204
-12%
31.
Nick at Nite 
194
-14%
32.
Lifetime
191
-16%
33.
VH1
182
-42%
34.
Hallmark Channel
180
-19%
35.
Nickelodeon  
162
-26%
36.
Syfy 
161
-21%
37.
Paramount Network 
156
-19%
38.
E! Entertainment
149
-15%
39.
BET
146
-8%
40.
WE TV 
141
-13%
41.
Travel Channel 
139
-21%
42.
FXX 
131
-14%
43.
Tru TV
121
-17%
44.
HBO
119
-52%
45.
TV Land
109
-15%
46.
Cartoon Network
108
-20%
47.
Nick Jr. 
104
-10%
48.
Nat Geo
103
-11%
49.
Disney Junior
101
-25%
50.
Disney Channel
100
-29%
Source: Nielsen, NPM (12/30/2019-12/06/2020, Live+7 and 12/07/2020-12/22/2020, Live+SD vs. 12/31/2018-12/08/2019, Live+7 and 12/09/2019-12/24/2019, Live+SD) Mon-Sat 8pm-11pm/Sun 7pm-11pm, ad-supported and premium pay networks. Ranked by 2020 Year-To-Date.

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