The Year in TV Ratings: Winners, Losers, and the Power of Snooki


Wednesday night marked the official end of the 2010–11 TV season, at least according to the whims of the broadcast networks and ratings-measurement monopoly Nielsen. (While TV these days is a year-round business, with cable and broadcast nets both airing plenty of first-run fare during the summer, the biggest hits still air during the old advertiser-dictated September through May calendar.) So how did your favorite network shows do? Vulture has scoured the Nielsen data to determine which shows soared and which stumbled, along with some other fun facts from the season that was. (Note that data is from Nielsen's most current live plus seven-day DVR viewing figures from September 20 through May 22).

Cable Continues to Rise
Before we delve into the network numbers, it's important to note that the days of focusing on solely broadcast for these charts may soon be over, considering how cable is ever-increasingly starting to match and even overtake their counterpart's ratings. Cable's No. 1 series, MTV's Jersey Shore, averaged 9.3 million viewers this winter (including DVR viewing) and a 5.8 rating in the demo for the season. That latter number puts it ahead of any scripted show on TV this season. Let's repeat that: More folks aged 18 to 49 watched Jersey Shore than Modern Family, , or Grey's Anatomy; its overall audience was bigger than shows such as The Office, Family Guy, Desperate Housewives, How I Met Your Mother, The Biggest Loser, and all the CSI and Law & Order series.

But Snooki et al. aren't the only cable heavyweights. BET's The Game, with a demo average for the season of 3.4, had a higher rating with folks under 50 than The Simpsons, Hawaii 5-0, and all of NBC's Thursday comedies (except for The Office). History's Pawn Stars draws more viewers than The Middle, 30 Rock, or Raising Hope. And even Comedy Central's clip-based Tosh.0 does better in the young-adult demo than expensive network staples such as Law & Order: SVU and The Good Wife.

The future should bring even more parity between cable and broadcast hits. If you drill down to the adults 18 to 34 demo — not the most important for advertisers, but an indicator of future adults 18 to 49 ratings — the number of cable shows outperforming broadcast jumps dramatically. With the under-35 crowd, Jersey Shore is actually the biggest thing in prime time, period, beating even Idol and Sunday Night Football. MTV's Teen Mom ends up outrating Glee and Family Guy; Comedy Central's Tosh does better than Grey's Anatomy, HIMYM, and The Big Bang Theory. Even tiny little shows on tiny little networks, like Oxygen's Bad Girls Club, gets a bigger under-35 audience than big brand names The Amazing Race and NBC's Chuck. Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend, network executives! (UPDATE: Some network types are pointing out to us that the ratings we cited for many network comedies and dramas included their repeat broadcasts, something which brings down their overall averages. By contrast, cable numbers tend to include few, if any, repeats. This is a fair point, and if you factor out repeats, Jersey would end up behind Modern Family (and possibly a couple other shows) in the overall demo standing. However, it's worth noting that shows like Idol and, until they left the air, 24 and Lost didn't air in-season repeats, either, thus boosting their averages as well. Yet broadcasters regularly compare the ratings for those series to network shows which do air lots of repeats.)

The Big Winners (Series)
Now, for old time's sake, onto the networks. To quote Randy Jackson's one quote, American Idol was clearly in it to win it (again): Even minus Simon, the performance episode of the singing competition remains TV's No. 1 show in both viewers and adults 18 to 49 (which we'll refer to as "the demo" going forward). Its overall audience of roughly 26 million viewers on Wednesdays was actually up a bit versus last season, though given how awful last season was, that's not as big of a deal as it might seem.

As for scripted fare, there simply is no stopping CBS's NCIS, which once again was the most-watched show in TV (just under 20 million patriotic viewers each week) and also added about 5 percent to its viewer tally (the shift of Idol off of Tuesdays no doubt helped a lot). The leader in the demo among scripted series, however, is ABC's Modern Family, which managed to grow more than 20 percent in that age group during its second season. Despite its broad appeal, however, MF isn't as big a performer with older viewers: It ranks No. 26 among all series (scripted or otherwise) in overall audience, and among those over 50, it ranked No. 47 (behind canceled fare such as Medium and Detroit 1-8-7). So much for Al Bundy's appeal with the AARP set.

The Big Losers (Series)
Erosion is a fact of life for most network shows after their first few seasons (well, except for NCIS). Some series fall faster, however. Fox's Fringe, for instance, lost 21 percent of its viewership, in part owing to its Friday shift. House didn't change time slots at all for its seventh season, however, and it still lost a hefty 18 percent of its audience. Over at CBS, the massive 31 percent decline for Undercover Boss is partially the result of the fact that the previous season's premiere episode aired after the Super Bowl. CSI, down 14 percent in its final season on Thursdays (season twelve will move to Wednesdays), had no similar excuse.

It pains us to say that Community was NBC's biggest year-to-year loser among scripted shows, falling 20 percent (the same decline as last fall's edition of The Biggest Loser), which makes us all the more grateful for the network's decision to bring it back for another year. ABC, meanwhile, had good reason to pull the plug on both V and Brothers & Sisters: About 20 percent of each show's audience decided to divorce them this season.

The Big Winners (Networks)
CBS is the most-watched network overall, while Fox wins in the demo. It's been this way for most of the last decade and, barring a complete collapse by either network, it'll be that way next season as well.

The Big Losers (Networks)
NBC again ranked fourth, while ABC just barely beat it out for third place in both overall audience and the demo. How bad were things for the Peacock? Despite starting from a lower base, it still had the biggest decline of any network, losing about 15 percent of its audience.

The Pride of Each Network
Since it's No. 1 overall, American Idol is obviously Fox's top series. But betcha didn't know that the most-watched scripted series on Fox is Thursday night's Bones (see, we're not alone). Fox is a demo-driven network, however, and Glee is tops on Fox with those under 50; this is why Ryan Murphy is allowed to do whatever he wants without anyone at the network saying, "Really?"

As mentioned before, NCIS is the biggest scripted show on TV and tops overall for CBS. The Eye's demo leader remains The Big Bang Theory, despite a move to Thursdays that caused its ratings to drop by double digits. Over at ABC, Dancing With the Stars gets the most eyeballs, while Modern Family owns the demo. And here's a WTF to ponder: The most-watched scripted series on NBC ended up being David E. Kelley's much-maligned Harry's Law, which still ranked only No. 28 among all broadcasts this season. (The Peacock draws more viewers with Sunday football and The Voice, which also lead for NBC in the demo).

Freshmen Get Hazed
It was an awful, awful season for first-year scripted series. In terms of overall viewers, the No. 1 show to debut this season was ABC's twice-delayed Body of Proof, which averaged just over 13 million viewers. Tom Selleck's Blue Bloods, Hawaii Five-0, Harry's Law, Mike & Molly, S#*! My Dad Says, and The Defenders were the only six other newcomers to crack the 10 million mark in average audience — and the last two were canceled by CBS. The least-watched new series? No, it wasn't Lone Star; NBC's two-and-gone Paul Reiser gets the stink-bomb honor with just 3.3 million viewers checking out the Peacock's Thursday-night disaster.

Things were even worse for newbies in the demo. Not a single new scripted series landed in Nielsen's top 25 among viewers under 50; the highest frosh on the list was CBS's Mike & Molly. It ranked No. 28 for the season, proving that lead-ins (in its case, Two and a Half Men before Charlie Sheen imploded) do matter. The only real breakout of the season in the demo was NBC's The Voice, which ends up in the top five for the season (albeit with an asterisk, since it didn't air six episodes in-season, which is the traditional benchmark for inclusion in end-of-season rankers).

Old vs. Young
In addition to overall ratings, networks often cite the median age of a series to spin how well it's doing. Usually, the younger the age, the more attractive it is to many advertisers. That's not an absolute rule, however: CBS's 60 Minutes is once again the oldest-skewing show on TV, with a median viewer age of 60.8 years. However, its audience is also one of the richest in TV, which is why it remains a lucrative asset for the Eye. Meanwhile, among scripted series with at least six telecasts, CBS newcomer Blue Bloods (59.8) skewed oldest, followed by Chaos (59.1), CSI:NY (58.5), Harry's Law (58.4), and The Good Wife (58.3).

As for which shows skew young, the CW can take pride in the fact that, despite getting up there in age, Gossip Girl — median age: 29.3 — is TV's youngest-skewing series. Fox's Family Guy and The Cleveland Show, whose median age is 30.8, are the most youthful series on the Big Four networks.