Friday, January 3, 2020

Revisiting the Top TV Ratings Moments of the 2010s

Because one of these lists each year is stressful enough, I decided for my look back on the entire decade to do a slightly less organized and researched list, separating all the main contenders into three general tiers. I feel pretty good about these tiers but didn't want to waste too many brain cells on the order within those tiers, so everything within each tier is "in no particular order." If you want to use this as a guide for your own formal list, feel free! ;-)

If you're looking for more on these moments, keep in mind that I have done a top ten list for every single year in the decade, and everything in contention here was in the top ten of its individual year:

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

The Top Five
The Walking Dead (2013) and Game of Thrones (2017) - These were the clear two biggest entertainment programs of the decade, and provided us with plenty of eye-popping moments along their meteoric rises. As The Walking Dead gets dragged through a protracted downfall, I do worry that the collapse will become its legacy rather than its unthinkable heights; it had basically a three-year run at well over a four-hundred Plus, which had absolutely no comparison in the modern era until Game of Thrones found the same territory in the late aughts. Thrones didn't have a chance to sustain that level over such a long period of time; its run in this territory was really just the last two seasons which, combined, were shorter than a single The Walking Dead season. But the last season of Thrones (with a 549 Plus!!!) was certainly the most impressive full season between the two shows.

For the moments that would make the list, in each case I would choose the moment when the show went from garden-variety top-tier broadcast show into truly generational phenomenon. Both these shows had even bigger moments (Plus-wise) beyond this, but I sorta consider those to just be "running up the score" in a sense. So for The Walking Dead, I'd take the season four premiere in fall 2013 (a 435 Plus; its previous high was 304.) And Thrones would be the season seven premiere in 2017 (a 385 Plus; its previous high was 299.)
The Two and a Half Men (2011) and Roseanne (2018) breakout returns - The two biggest comedy episodes of the era also need to be high on this list. Two and a Half Men's unbelievable introduction to the Ashton Kutcher era (10.7 demo/453 Plus) was the first act in a major comedy resurgence, largely concentrated in the 2011-12 season but also reverberating beyond. The show that Men launched on that night, 2 Broke Girls, went on to a nice six-year run, and then the next night came an impressive premiere from New Girl. But it was really The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family that would carry the comedy revival deeper into the decade.

That episode lasted almost the entire decade without being eclipsed in Plus, but in spring 2018 something finally did: the enormous revival of '90s sitcom Roseanne (5.2 demo/471 Plus). It was a big time for nostalgic revivals, but this one soared over all the others, even beating the breakout Will and Grace premiere by more than 70%. It shed over half of that demo in the following two months, but thanks to the short nature of its season it was still able to post the highest seasonal average for a comedy in the Plus era. But its legacy was tainted by Roseanne Barr's summer meltdown, leading to Roseanne's ouster and ultimately the diminished (if still strong) sitcom The Conners.

The rise of an Empire (2015) - Rounding out the top tier is the biggest new series of the era and, without question, one of the all-time great TV ratings thrill rides: Empire started well (with a 3.8 demo/226 Plus) and grew in the demo for almost every week of its freshman run thereafter, ending with a 6.1/6.9 (or 363/410 Plus) finale. The full season average was 303, a record for a broadcast drama in the Plus era, and it matched that 303 (albeit with a downhill trajectory) in season two. It has declined quite sharply from there, and it's got work to do in its final half-season to avoid falling below the league average for season six. But as with The Walking Dead, I want to use this space to urge you to remember the good times, and not judge it by its final impression.

On the List
The Masked Singer (2019) - Obviously, the problem with evaluating this one is that not very much of The Masked Singer story has been written. If it's still a megahit three years from now, you can make a case to put this one in the top tier. If it's a league average or lower show three years from now, it might drop some. But it's already put together a couple seasons that are way bigger in Plus than anything The Voice has done, so it's certainly demonstrated a high ceiling at the very least.

This Is Us (2017) - NBC's climb out of the absolute gutter at the beginning of the decade was one of the biggest stories of the 2010s and it would be a shame not to address it at all on a top ten list, but it is a little lacking from a "momentousness" standpoint. The comeback was built on the somewhat weirdly consistent The Voice, which spent most of the decade plugging away as a roughly 200ish Plus performer. If I had to choose a Voice moment, I guess I would go with the season two premiere the night after the Super Bowl in 2012, when it really got its first chance to be a regular season tentpole. But the story didn't fluctuate a ton from that point forward.

Fortunately, though much of the comeback had already happened by this point, NBC did finally get a signature drama out of this in the 2016 megahit newbie This Is Us. It wasn't a huge thrill ride like the early weeks of Empire or Desperate Housewives, but the season two premiere (3.9 demo / 356 Plus) was probably strong enough for a spot in this top ten.

Young Sheldon premieres after a series-best The Big Bang Theory (2017) - This is a slightly inferior version of the Two and a Half Men / 2 Broke Girls moment in 2011, with a veteran having a breakthrough night and launching what would become one of the top comedy newbies of the era. TBBT, while incredibly strong here even by its own huge standard, was not quite a splash on the level of Men and Roseanne. Sheldon looked better than 2BG on this night and went on to become the era's first megahit comedy newbie, though you can certainly make the case it's not a huge surprise that a spin-off would do well after a parent show.

The Borderline
The top two in 2014: The Flash and TGIT launches - At the time, I chose TGIT over The Flash to top the 2014 list. Having seen how all the shows played out five years later, I would probably take The Flash over TGIT for this list; after all, The Flash went on to post the biggest season for a netlet series in the Plus era, has the five biggest drama seasons since the CW launched in 2006, and completely transformed its network's development strategy. Five years later, it still towers over everything else on its network. How to Get Away with Murder was a huge newbie and the TGIT lineup remained a legitimately robust brand name for a couple more years after that, but it had a much shorter run in terms of defining its network. This night was all about Scandal and Murder, but lead-off veteran Grey's Anatomy ended up being the best story in the second half of the decade.

The first Donald Trump-fueled Republican debate (2015) - Three years into a Trump presidency, this moment stands out even more glaringly as a harbinger of what was to come in the second half of the decade. Politics have become a much bigger driver of TV ratings, both on a day-to-day basis as cable news made a comeback, and in several other big moments (like the Stormy Daniels and James Comey interviews). But this one, where it all began, still stands out as the most momentous. The cycle-to-cycle comparisons that the Donald Trump Republican primary debates put up were simply astonishing; the first one got eight times the rating of the corresponding debate in the 2012 cycle.

The Breaking Bad finale (2013) - I ranked this highly in 2013, and like the Trump debates, years later this moment works as both a stunning individual ratings achievement and as a harbinger of things to come. A once-tiny cable drama exploding all the way to a megahit finale was some strong TV ratings-based evidence of the impact that binge-watching and streaming services could have on the culture. There have been some smaller-scale positive streaming -> ratings stories, like the sophomore bounce for the CW's Riverdale, but streaming's larger impact has been to further fragment the TV audience, speeding up declines for the old institutions.

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