NBC’s three-season reign as the most watched broadcast network among the adults 18-49 demographic most coveted by advertisers is officially over.
Fox has nabbed the demo crown for the 2019-20 season, reclaiming the top spot for the first time in eight years, on the strength of a lineup that includes Thursday Night Football and The Masked Singer, which was the season’s No. 1 entertainment show in the 18-49 demo. It is also the only network to see season-over-season gains in both total viewers and 18-49, while most rivals again weathered double-digit drops.
Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same: CBS was No. 1 in total viewers for the 12th consecutive season, and Sunday Night Football continued its decade-long streak as the most-watched primetime show in both total viewers (for the ninth year in a row) and the 18-49 demo (its 10th consecutive win).
However, the season ratings prove that linear TV continues to hemorrhage viewers, who are fleeing for streamers and other digital options, and increasingly not watching live TV aside from the NFL: Football games and various pre- and postgame programming accounted for all but three of the season’s Top 10 shows in the 18-49 demo.
Fox saw a 13% uptick in the demo, from a 1.5 last season to a 1.7, while NBC fell 19% (from a 1.6 to a 1.3), ABC dipped 8% (from a 1.2 to a 1.1), CBS plummeted a whopping 33% (from a 1.5 to a 1.0), and The CW dropped 25% (from a 0.4 to a 0.3).
All numbers reflect Nielsen’s “most current” ratings, which is live-plus-7 for the entire season except for the last two weeks, which are live-plus-same-day.
The news was slightly better on the total viewer side, where three of the five broadcasters were flat or saw audience increases compared to last season. CBS repeated as the total viewers champ, despite an 8% ratings drop (from 8.27 million last season to 7.62 million). NBC was flat (6.52 million both seasons), Fox saw a hefty 30% jump (from 4.83 million to 6.29 million), ABC rose 7% (5.07 million to 5.43 million), and The CW dropped 22% (1.34 million to 1.04 million).
While Fox held the demo lead for the whole season—with a big midseason boost from the Super Bowl—NBC was leading in total viewers after the fall, threatening CBS’ 11-season streak. But CBS retook the lead after winning the last 13 weeks of the season in a row.
“This is the 12th year in a row we’ve been No. 1 in primetime,” CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl told Adweek earlier this week, as the network unveiled a fall schedule that is completely dependent on its shows being able to resume production in the coming months. “When you have that kind of inherent strength, that’s certainly what you’re going to play to in the fall, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Next season’s numbers will obviously be affected by the pandemic and the continued production shutdowns—and most networks will see huge ratings hits if sports are unable to resume. But if sports and scripted shows are back on the air for most of the 2020-21 season, CBS will be the early favorite to continue its total viewer win, given that it is airing Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7, 2021, with Fox likely to retain its top 18-49 with sports and The Masked Singer.
NBC’s Sunday Night Football repeated as the No. 1 broadcast series in both the demo (6.0 rating) and total viewers (20 million). Fox’s Thursday Night Football was No. 3 in the demo with a 4.5 rating. The Masked Singer, at No. 7, was the top entertainment program in the demo (3.2). The most-watched drama was NBC’s This Is Us (tied for No. 8 overall, with a 2.9), while the top-rated comedies were much further down the rankings, tied for No. 25 overall (CBS’ Young Sheldon and ABC’s final season of Modern Family, both with a 1.6).
The other Top 10 shows were all various NFL pregame and postgame shows. Only three entertainment shows cracked the Top 10: The Masked Singer, This Is Us and ABC’s The Bachelor (tied for 10th, with a 2.4 rating).
As for total viewers, NFL programming captured six of those slots, including Thursday Night Football (No. 4, with 15 million). But a few dramas also made it in: CBS’ NCIS (No. 3 overall, with 15.3 million), CBS’ FBI (No. 7, with 12.6 million), CBS’ Blue Bloods (No. 9, with 12.0 million) and NBC’s Chicago Fire (No. 10, 11.7 million). Young Sheldon was the most-watched comedy in total viewers, and No. 12 overall, with 11.4 million.
Among late-night shows, CBS’ The Late Show With Stephen Colbert was on top in both total viewers (3.56 million) and the 18-49 demo (0.43) for the second consecutive season, followed by NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (2.04 million; 0.40 demo rating) and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live (1.97 million; 0.34 demo rating).
Looking back at the season rankings over the past decade proves just how much linear ratings have cratered in recent years. Fox’s 1.7 demo rating for the season was good enough for first place this year, but would have ranked behind all of the big four broadcasters just four seasons ago—and is less than half of the 3.5 demo rating that the network had when it was on top in 2010-11.
2019-20 September-to-May Season Averages (through May 17)
Adults 18-49 (rating, audience)
Fox 1.7, 2.19 million
NBC 1.3, 1.71 million
ABC 1.1, 1.43 million
CBS 1.0, 1.35 million
The CW 0.3, 400,000
CBS 7.62 million
NBC 6.52 million
Fox 6.29 million
ABC 5.43 million
The CW 1.04 million
The big four broadcast networks’ 18-49 season rankings over the past decade: