Here Are 2016’s Most Watched Networks and Shows in the Coveted 18-49 Demographic

Super Bowl 50, NBC and The Walking Dead came out on top

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Christmas is still a few days away, but Santa Claus, with a little help from Nielsen, is handing out a few early holiday gifts to the networks: ratings wins for 2016.

Yes, most ratings revolve around the September-May season, but as we look back on everything else this calendar year—including 2016's best and most disappointing TV shows—we couldn't let the year end without recognizing which networks and shows notched victories in the all-important 18-49 demo. 

It was a very good year for NBC, The Walking Dead, Adult Swim and CBS, which broadcast Super Bowl 50. But some of the other networks found coal in their Nielsen stocking this year.

Broadcast networks

NBC lost the 18-49 crown for the 2015-16 season, but it's on top for the full 2016 year, with an average demo rating of 2.2 (in Nielsen's "most current" numbers, which include live-plus-7 for the year, and live-plus-same-day for the past two weeks). CBS, which won last season in the demo, was second for the year (1.8), followed closely by ABC (1.7) and Fox (1.6). The CW brought up the rear with a 0.6 ratings.

NBC was also No. 1 for the year among millennials, with a 1.5 rating in the 18-34 demo. ABC and Fox tied for second (1.2) followed by CBS (1.1) and The CW (0.5). Among total viewers, however, CBS was once again in the lead, followed by NBC, ABC, Fox and The CW.

Cable networks

Among cable networks in primetime, ESPN took the lead for the year, with an average of 772,000 viewers in 18-49. In second place was TBS (729K viewers), followed by USA (693K), TNT (629K), AMC (606K), Discovery (572K), FX (565K), Adult Swim (533K), HGTV (478K) and Bravo (469K). (These ratings, like everything else following, reflect Nielsen's live-plus-7  numbers through Dec. 4.)

In total day ratings, Adult Swim was No. 1 for the 12th consecutive year, with an average of 603,000 viewers in the 18-49 demo. The rest of the total day Top 10: Nick at Nite (399K), ESPN (377K), Nickelodeon (373K), TNT (329K), USA (326K), HGTV (280K), Cartoon Network (276K) and FX (260K).


No surprise, but Super Bowl 50—which was watched by 112.6 viewers overall—was the top telecast of the year among adults 18-49, drawing 48.1 million viewers in that demo for CBS. In second place for the year was World Series Game 7 between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians on Fox (16.2 million in the demo, 40.3 million total viewers), NBA Finals Game 7 between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers (14.4 million in 18-49, 31.3 million overall), The Oscars on ABC (13.8 million, 35.6 million overall) and The Walking Dead's Season 7 premiere on AMC (13.6 million).

Rounding out the 18-49 top 10 is The NBA Trophy Presentation on ABC (13.6 million), NFL divisional playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and the Arizona Cardinals on NBC (13.5 million), the Aug. 9 Summer Olympics on NBC (13.3 million), CBS' AFC wildcard matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals (12.8 million) and The Walking Dead's Season 6 midseason return (12.7 million).

The top series of the year in 18-49, by a wide margin, was The Walking Dead, which drew 11.3 million viewers in the demo (and 18 million overall). Coming in second was NBC's Sunday Night Football (8.7 million in 18-49, 19.3 million overall), Fox's Empire (7.0 million in 18-49, 13.8 million overall), CBS' The Big Bang Theory (7.0 million in 18-49 and 19.9 million overall, making it TV's most watched show), HBO's Game of Thrones (6.7 million in 18-49, 10.6 million overall), CBS' Thursday Night Football (6.4 million in 18-49, 14.8 million overall), Fox's The X-Files (6.1 million in demo, 13.6 million overall), NBC's freshman hit This Is Us (5.9 million in demo, 14.4 million overall), Fox's The OT (NFL postgame;  5.7 million in 18-49, 12.8 million overall) and ABC's Modern Family (5.3 million in demo, 11.7 million overall).

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.