Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Top 10 TV Ratings Moments of 2021

A couple weeks late this year, but it's finally time for my twelfth 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. ABC Gets Another Winter Game Show Night (January 7)
For the second straight year, ABC made a splash in the opening week of the new year with game show programming. It was not a huge event on the level of last year's Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time, but the primetime celebrity edition of Wheel of Fortune (1.16) still ranked as the year's biggest new series, and The Chase (0.95), featuring the Jeopardy! GOAT stars, held on nicely at 9/8c. Both shows were called back into duty relatively soon after their winter runs, with Celebrity Wheel of Fortune looking like a more moderate player on Sundays in the fall.

9. La Brea Has a Hopeful Start (September 28)
After a Premiere Monday featuring two very weak newbie starts (Ordinary Joe and The Big Leap), broadcast TV needed some good news. It came in the form of a moderately promising start for NBC's La Brea (0.77), which posted more than double the Ordinary Joe rating with a very similar The Voice lead-in. By the end of the fall, the CBS comedy Ghosts was emerging as the stronger long-term prospect, while La Brea was looking kinda dubious; it was underwhelming as a DVR grower for this kind of show, and fluctuated a lot depending on the lead-in. But it at least provided some hope that people will show up for something new on broadcast.

8. Adele One Night Only (November 14)
I sort of hate to include two Oprah Winfrey interviews in one list, and this one paled somewhat in the inevitable comparison to the other one listed below from eight months earlier. But this part-interview, part-concert special was still one of the biggest things broadcast TV offered in a mostly dreary fall. Until New Year's Eve, it was the broadcast primetime season's second-biggest non-sports telecast in A18-49 (1.65) and A18-34 (1.14), trailing only the 60 Minutes episode that directly preceded it.

7. The Equalizer Wakes Up CBS Sunday (February 14)
CBS' Queen Latifah-led remake of The Equalizer got the biggest platform on television, airing after the Super Bowl on February 7. Interestingly, it looked like a pretty underwhelming post-SB occupant at the time, but a nice crowd (0.93) still showed up for the timeslot premiere a week later. Even more impressive was the show's post-premiere hold, staying above the league average even through the late spring. After struggling through with God Friended Me for a couple seasons, The Equalizer became a boon to all of CBS Sunday, helping the network post double digit Plus growth in all three hours for the rest of the season.

6. The Field of Dreams Game Energizes the MLB Summer (August 12)
For most of the sporting landscape, 2021 was a year for the ratings to get relatively back on track, after the pandemic threw many of them out of their regular scheduling patterns in 2020. But the most momentous sports TV rating came during the dog days of the Major League Baseball summer, when drawing a national audience for regular season games is usually impossible. This game took place in Dyersville, Iowa, the site of iconic baseball film Field of Dreams, and it posted a whooping 1.51 demo, about four times the average of Fox's other regular season MLB games in 2021. Expect baseball to make more efforts in this vein going forward.

5. All American and Walker Lead the CW's Return Week (Jan. 18, 21)
After sitting out the entire fall of 2020 due to the pandemic, the CW's regular programming finally returned after the new year, and the network came back with two shows posting the 0.4 demo rating that had become elusive for the netlet: returnee All American (0.39) and newbie Walker (0.37). While Walker remained a solid player by CW standards, the bigger story eventually became All American, posting a second consecutive huge round of growth in season three and staying north of 0.20 all the way till the end of June.

4. The Grammys and Oscars Drop 60%ish (March 14, April 25)
As rough as some of the entertainment programming ratings have gotten in 2021, the biggest negative story in the COVID era remains what has happened to the big awards shows. I will just pick on the two usual staples here, because the Academy Awards (2.12) and Grammy Awards (2.28) were both down roughly 60% year-to-year, but basically nobody was completely safe from this trend. For the ceremonies that have aired a second time in the pandemic, there has been some stabilization, but little to no indication that these shows can get all the way "back on track" the way sports have. We'll see in the coming months if the Grammys and Oscars can defy the trend.

3. Oprah, Harry and Meghan Top the Year in Specials (March 7)
For more than a decade, you could reliably slot in one of the above awards shows as the year's top non-sports event. That title went to either the Oscars (10 times) or the Grammys (2 times) every single year from 2009-2020.  But their collapse this year helped pave the way for an enormous-rated CBS event a week before the Grammys to knock them off the pedestal. Oprah Winfrey's interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle easily beat both of those shows in A18-49 (2.72), but it was on another level entirely in total viewers (17.813), where its older-skewing audience nearly tied those two shows combined.

2. The Law & Order Franchise Has a Breakout Night (April 1)
Christopher Meloni returned to the Law & Order universe roughly a decade after his last season as a regular on Law and Order: SVU, in a two-hour event that included an SVU episode and the series premiere of his vehicle Organized Crime. The viewers were ready for his return. SVU's 1.69 demo was more than double the season's previous high, and almost 50% higher than the previous series high in Plus, while Organized Crime (1.56) held onto more than 90% of that demo. At least half of those huge demo audiences departed in the subsequent weeks, but SVU still settled at a much higher level than before and finished with its highest season-long Plus in more than a decade.

1. Yellowstone Towers Over All Broadcast Entertainment (November 7)
For much of the fall, there was a sort of sameness to all the broadcast entertainment ratings, and it felt like nothing could go meaningfully higher than a 1.0. Turns out it took a cable show to shatter that ceiling, as Paramount Network phenomenon Yellowstone (1.62/1.49) became the latest entry in the broadcast-beating tradition of Walking Dead/Game of Thrones. And it was no one-time thing, as it hung at 1.3-1.4 going forward, a level that no series other than football lead-outs has achieved even once this season. It's still a ways from the Walking Dead/GoT heights in Plus, but it ended the season on another new high (1.76), so it may not be finished.

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