It's time for my seventh annual look back at the year's top 10 moments in TV ratings! As always, the criteria are pretty subjective, but I go for a blend of 1) relatively isolated incidents that are impressive for their sheer enormity/cultural impact and 2) moments that exemplify much larger trends in TV this year. Please let me know about my most egregious rankings/omissions. Happy New Year!
Here are the previous years:
2010: 10 to 6 | 5 to 1
2011: 10 to 6 | 5 to 1
2012: 10 to 6 | 5 to 1
2013: 10 to 6 | 5 to 1
2014: 10 to 6 | 5 to 1
We start the list off with a couple notably strong finales. American Idol was the defining TV show of the previous decade, but this decade had been mostly about the show's epic collapse. But its final campaign in 2016 brought some redemption, culminating in this 3.0 finale that was up a staggering 76% from the 2015 finale. On HBO, Game of Thrones had another incredible season in the ratings, up year-to-year for nine of its ten airings. It ended with a new series high 4.35 rating in late June.
Two years ago, The Sound of Music Live! kicked off a new tradition of live musical productions on broadcast TV. But was it the start of a generation-long tradition, or just Carrie Underwood-fueled lightning in a bottle? It was uncertain after Peter Pan Live! disappointed in late 2014, but Grease Live! proved the form could work big on multiple networks and also appeal to different skews of audience. Grease (4.3) was within three tenths of Sound of Music's breakthrough 4.6 rating, but it skewed way younger (with less than two-thirds the total viewership).
The season seven premiere of The Walking Dead resolved the big summer cliffhanger and exploded to an unthinkable 8.36 rating. It was the series' second-biggest raw rating, up 13% in raw year-to-year, and the show's most impressive performance ever by any kind of historical-adjusted measure. Using A18-49+, it should beat out even the Friends finale in 2004. It was also something of a blip; just a few weeks later, the show ended up with some of its worst year-to-year trends ever. If anything, this point may unfairly go down as a negative in the TWD narrative, because it's allowed the media to point to the huge post-premiere declines.
In terms of TV ratings comparisons, the presidential debate season was actually a flashier story in 2015, when early Republican primary debates would beat the previous cycle's corresponding viewership several times over. But the first clash between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in late September was still a record-setter, seen by 84 million and growing by more than 25% from the 2012 opener. Subsequent presidential debates settled at around 70 million, but continued to beat their 2012 counterparts. This goes down as the high point in a banner year for cable news ratings, and the election result may continue to boost that industry.
The 2016-17 season is going to have a much improved class of new broadcast series, after 2015-16 was littered with timeslot hits, modest performers and a lot of junk. That improvement starts at the top (see below) but this fall class also had depth. Premiere Wednesday was the best example of this, as three newbies (Lethal Weapon, Speechless and Designated Survivor) all broke a 2.0 rating on the same night. As of the end of the fall, all three of these shows are still successful on some level, though much of Designated's audience now comes from delayed DVRing.
It's crazy to think that five years ago, basic cable was picking up steam and given much of the credit for the fall of broadcast TV. Now it's been largely gobbled up by an even bigger fish (streaming services), and declining even more rapidly than broadcast. It's become uncommon to see something new make a legit mark in this landscape, but FX made it happen with its star-studded miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson. It opened on this night with a 1.96 rating and stayed in the ones throughout its run. It's a big achievement in Live+SD ratings, made crazier because such a high percentage of its audience was watching on a delayed basis. (This ep had a 3.6 and the show settled around a 3.0 in Live+7 ratings.)
Major League Baseball always had one story waiting in its pocket that could truly recapture the national imagination: a World Series involving the Chicago Cubs, who hadn't won it in 108 years. It finally came to pass in 2016, against an opponent (the Cleveland Indians) with a lengthy title drought of its own. Best of all? It went the distance, with the Cubs coming from 3-1 down to set up a decisive seventh game that went into extra innings. The result was 40 million viewers and a 12.6 demo rating. That beat regular chart-toppers like the NBA Finals (which had its own seventh game), everything from the Summer Olympics, and the Oscars. It also nearly doubled the previous highest-rated World Series game this decade!
2016 saw one of the most underwhelming post-Super Bowl occupants on record (late night series The Late Show with Stephen Colbert), but it also saw perhaps the strongest use of the "mini-Super Bowl" lead-in on conference championship Sunday. Fox brought back '90s drama The X-Files to extraordinary results, with a 6.1 demo rating that nearly doubled the mini-Bowl lead-out from a year ago. And it transferred a legitimate big hit audience to its regular Monday timeslot, starting with a 3.2 and settling in the low-2's. We don't know when exactly this show will be back, but we do know this kind of performance will not exactly stem the ongoing tide of remakes and revivals. (Fox alone has 24 and Prison Break coming back in the first half of 2017.)
Another struggling frontier in TV ratings got an awakening in 2016, when NBC's kid talent show Little Big Shots woke up the decaying Sunday broadcast world. Five days earlier, it had an extremely promising 2.9 preview five days earlier after The Voice, the biggest series premiere rating of 2016. It brought almost all of that (2.8) to this Sunday airing, and even grew in total viewers. Though it fell to the high-1's eventually, it still outrated every scripted newbie in the rough 2015-16 class. And it beats out X-Files for the #2 spot here because it will definitely be back in 2017 (though we'll see how much of the audience comes with it).
NBC's return to scripted respectability began long before this fall, but it never really had a signature breakout series until This Is Us came along. The moment choice here was its third episode. Before week three, it wasn't clear that This Is Us was that much stronger than other post-Voice occupants like The Blacklist and Blindspot. But coming off a preemption for a debate, and also switching timeslots, it still rose to tie its premiere's series high. On a week-to-week basis, This Is Us hasn't been nearly the thrill ride that season one of Empire was; it's more a story of steadiness. But it still enters 2017 with real potential to be just the third new scripted megahit on record.