Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Top 10 TV Ratings Moments of 2020

It's time for my eleventh 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 relatively isolated incidents that are impressive for their sheer enormity/cultural impact, and moments that exemplify much larger trends in TV this year. Please let me know about my most egregious rankings and 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

10. Modern Family Ends and Millionaire Returns (April 8)
After about three weeks in which the networks largely aired their regular lineups, the series finale of ABC tentpole Modern Family (1.6) became one of the first "events" to benefit from the huge upswing in viewing during COVID-19 lockdowns. It spiked by more than 60% week-to-week and set a new season high (no small achievement considering it even beat the Jeopardy!-boosted January episode) and helped to launch the Jimmy Kimmel-led revival of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (1.1), which went on to a solid spring-summer run before struggling in the fall.

9. A Megahit Bachelor Season Has a Gigahit Finale (March 10)
I'm usually not one to highly rank instances of "strong reality show has a strong season," but the 2020 season of The Bachelor had enough milestone significance to qualify. It was the first season in almost two decades of Bachelor to average more than two times the league average (222) and this finale's 2.47 demo made it the first episode in franchise history to cross the three-times threshold (301). And as always, it was far stronger in young female demos, with the season averaging a 461 W18-34+! The franchise was called back into regular season duty with a fall edition of The Bachelorette, nearing megahit levels in its own right.

8. Parks and Recreation Reunion Outshines Today's Sitcoms (April 30)
Another sitcom made a big splash at the end of April as Parks and Recreation had a remotely-filmed reunion (1.4) to raise money for Feeding America. It never had a league average season in its seven-year run, and usually wasn't close, but a half-decade of streaming exposure seemed to make a difference. It crushed its regular run's high in Plus (basically posting the same raw numbers as in its final season in 2015), and would've been the third-biggest live action sitcom episode of the season (behind only the two aforementioned Modern episodes). It was even more impressive in adults 18-34 (1.2, a 257 A18-34+), the highest 18-34 rating for a broadcast scripted episode without an NFL lead-in all season!

7. 9-1-1: Lone Star Gets a Super Monday Bounce (February 3)
Longtime readers might remember the good ol' days when at least half of the items on these lists were big scripted newbie performances. This year, only one manages to make the cut: the spin-off of Fox's growing hit 9-1-1. In a truly dire 2019-20 scripted class, it was clearly the strongest option, posting right around a 1.0 for almost all of its winter run. I'm highlighting its spike to 1.27 the night after the Super Bowl as its biggest moment. Even though that level wasn't the norm, it actually was about a tenth higher the next couple weeks than it had been before the Super Bowl.

6. The Disney Family Singalong Scores Amid Lockdowns (April 16)
ABC put the Power of Disney to work during the spring viewing upswing, with one of the first (and certainly the most successful) in a bevy of remotely-produced specials, this one scoring numbers (10.4 million viewers, 2.6 demo) very similar to The Little Mermaid Live! from earlier in the season. ABC has continued getting mileage out of the singalong tradition with a second volume less than a month later, plus a holiday version at the end of November. Both of them pulled about half the demo rating of the original.

5. Election Night Becomes Election Week (November 4-6)
The coronavirus pandemic had wide-ranging effects on political campaign season, some of which were actually bad for TV ratings (like the virtual party conventions). But the slow counting of mail-in ballots prevented a winner from being called till the Saturday after the election, allowing cable news to sustain sky-high ratings deep into the week. For comparison, on the Wednesday to Friday after the election in 2016, the highest-rated cable news hours averaged 1.35, 0.67 and 0.52. In 2020, those numbers were a whooping 2.37, 2.04 and 1.77, then spiked to a 3.59 for the victory speech on Saturday night.

4. Yellowstone Has Another Summer of Meteoric Growth (June 21)
Paramount Network's game-changing family drama just missed the list last year, so it has to be there after pulling off even more pronounced growth in 2020. Its 0.89 season premiere was a series high by three full tenths, and up a whooping 98% from the season two premiere. It fell to a consistent 0.7 for most of the summer (always up at least 30% y2y) before spiking to another new series high (0.92) for the season finale. While it's still only a league-averageish show at these levels, it's important to note this is happening amid a complete wasteland for cable scripted ratings elsewhere; many a network has given up on the scripted game entirely.

3. The Last Dance Serves a Sports-starved Populace (April 19)
When COVID-19 shut down sports in March, ESPN went to work fast-tracking its long-promised documentary about the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty, originally slated to air around the NBA Finals in June. Its premiere in April, when viewership levels were still near their peak, and set a completely new bar for sports documentary ratings. It had a huge 2.53/2.25 demo for the first two hours, and was even more impressive in younger demos (the premiere's 2.17 A18-34 is high-end Bachelor territory) and male demos (nothing in the entertainment realm other than Super Bowl/championship lead-outs got within even a point of its 3.35 M18-49).

2. Jeopardy! GOAT Is the Hit of the Winter (January 7)
Before the coronavirus changed American life, the biggest story in 2020 TV ratings was ABC's massive event that brought together three of the best Jeopardy! champions ever, premiering at a 2.4 and basically staying there the next two nights. The only problem was how quickly it ended, wrapping up on night four with a 1.9. It averaged almost exactly the same Plus as last year's #1, season one of The Masked Singer. Jeopardy! returned to the news with the passing of Alex Trebek later in the year, and this show's reverberations will be felt in 2021 as the three contestants take on a new ABC game show (The Chase), while Jeopardy!'s syndicated teammate Wheel of Fortune gets its own primetime version.

1. Season Highs In First Week of COVID Shutdowns (Mar. 16-20)
Though Wednesday, March 11 is famously remembered as the night America shut down due to a raging global pandemic, the viewing upswing that followed was not that obvious in the TV ratings until the next week, when a slew of shows grew by multiple tenths week-to-week and hit new season highs. This takes the #1 spot not because of any one show but due to the sheer tonnage, and how this effect largely sustained for the next two months; it changed the very shape of an entire TV season, elevating ratings across the board at a time of year when they're usually declining.

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