The overarching trend in TV ratings during 2014 was the same as it’s been for several years now: Viewers continue to abandon live-TV viewing in favor of non-linear platforms such as DVRs, streaming networks, and video on demand. A Nielsen study released in early December even quantified the erosion, noting the average American spent about 72 fewer hours enjoying traditional TV this year versus last. And yet a closer look at 2014’s TV ratings underlines we’re still obsessing over plenty of shows, both old and new. Monster hits such as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story became even more popular this year, while broadcast networks proved they could still draw massive crowds via fresh hits such as Gotham and How to Get Away With Murder. As has become our annual tradition here at Vulture, we spent several days diving deep into the year-end Nielsen data to uncover both the year’s big bullet points as well as some of the smaller-yet-fascinating ratings trends for the year. Click though for 14 things we discovered about What We Watched in 2014.
Some housekeeping notes: This story is based on Nielsen data supplied to Vulture by multiple broadcast and cable networks. Except where otherwise noted, figures cited or referenced include both live viewing and viewing that takes place within seven days after a program airs. In most cases, numbers are for first-run broadcasts of shows (i.e., no reruns) and include telecasts through November; network averages are through early December. Rankings include shows that aired at least two episodes in 2014; specials, sports broadcasts, and movies aren’t included. All the fun stuff on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu isn’t mentioned because they don’t tell us who watches what. Still, everybody watched Transparent, right?
As it has been for years, CBS will end 2014 as TV’s most-watched network by a mile, thanks to the only two scripted series on TV that regularly draw over 20 million viewers each week: The Big Bang Theory and NCIS. And beyond the top two shows, CBS also boasts seven of 2014’s ten most-watched programs (Thursday football, both NCIS spinoffs, Blue Bloods, and Scorpion also made the cut) and 15 of the top 25. But after notching a victory among adult viewers under 50 in 2013, the Eye will narrowly cede this year’s demo crown to NBC (and that’s even after removing the Winter Olympics from the tally). The Peacock’s demo win was powered by Sunday Night Football and two other shows in the top ten: Blacklist and The Voice. ABC comes in third for the year among all viewers and adults 18–49, but that’s mostly because it doesn’t have a weekly football franchise. In the demo, the Alphabet network actually has more top-ten shows this year (Modern Family, How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal, and Grey’s Anatomy) than any other network. And if you factor all sports out of the equation, ABC is actually tied with NBC and CBS in the key demo. As for Fox, it’s in fourth place among all viewers and adults under 50.
There’s just no sugarcoating it: 2014 will be remembered as an annus horribilis for Fox. Factoring out the big bump itgot from the Super Bowl, it lost the most overall audience versus 2013 (-11 percent) and dropped furthest among viewers under 50 (-15 percent) of any of the major networks. The decline of American Idol has been a big factor in Fox’s fade-out, but there’s also trouble elsewhere. Not a single Fox series landed among TV’s top 25 most-watched shows in 2014, and only one of its scripted series (newcomer Gotham) averaged over 10 million viewers. As for the other networks, CBS suffered serious erosion this year, too (dropping 9 percent in the demo and about 5 percent in overall audience), while ABC was flat in viewers and down 5 percent among viewers under 50. NBC may have had the best story to tell: It had the smallest demo decline (about 4 percent), and it actually grew its audience by about 8 percent (even leaving out the Winter Olympics).
Trying to identify the year’s biggest new hit is a bit tough. ABC’s Resurrection looked like it had a shot at the title after bowing, seemingly out of nowhere, to massive numbers last Easter. But viewers started fleeing almost immediately, and after more declines this fall, it wouldn’t be a shock if the show is canceled next year. If the metric for success is audience size and buzz, 2014’s freshman winner is clear: ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder is the undisputed Nielsen champ. In just nine weeks, it’s become broadcast TV’s No. 1 drama among viewers under 50, building on its already-successful lead-in, Scandal (while also generating crazy amounts of online buzz). And yet, as impressive as Murder has been, it has had the advantage of following another massive hit and being part of a whole night of Shonda Rhimes goodness. By contrast, Fox’s Gotham has become that network’s No. 1 show and a top-ten hit overall despite airing in an unprotected 8 p.m. Monday time slot opposite reality smashes on NBC (The Voice) and ABC (Dancing With the Stars.) It’s also done well in a year when Fox has been tanking it everywhere else. Even if its raw numbers aren’t as eye-popping as Murder’s, the criminals of Gotham deserve to share the freshman winner’s circle with ABC’s legal thriller.
AMC’s zom-dram grew even more infectious this year, averaging just over 19 million viewers per episode and surpassing even its record 2013 performance. Its audience among the demographically desirable group of adults under 50 soared to nearly 13 million, up from last year’s 10.8 million. Not only was it the No. 1 entertainment show in the demo on all of TV, it widened its lead over second-place show The Big Bang Theory (9.2 million in the demo) and doubled its closest cable rival (HBO’s Game of Thrones, with 6.1 million). And since returning this fall, the show has set more records still: The first two episodes of the season drew more viewers under 50 than last winter’s Grammy Awards or the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics. The Walking Dead’s power isn’t merely limited to its weekly Sunday time slot, either. On average in 2014, 3.6 million adult viewers under 50 watched each episode of the show via DVR within a week of its premiere. If that DVR audience for Dead were listed as a separate program by Nielsen, it would beat the same-day demo viewership for every single scripted show on basic cable in 2014.
Cable reality shows have a history of exploding quickly and fading fast: MTV’s Jersey Shore was breaking network records in the summer of 2011 and signed off for good by Christmas the next year. So by that standard, perhaps it’s no shocker that the half-life for A&E’s Duck Dynasty turned out to be remarkably short. The hillbilly comedy ended 2013 as the No. 3 show on all of TV (broadcast and cable) among adult viewers under 50, averaging a whopping 7.6 million viewers in the demo each week. This year Duck quacked, declining to 4.3 million in the demo. That’s down nearly 45 percent from its 2013 peak and enough to send the show tumbling out of Nielsen’s top 20. Even older audiences abandoned the Robertsons: After averaging 13.4 million viewers of all ages in 2013, the show is on track to slip below 8 million by year’s end, not even ranking among TV’s top 50 in 2014. It’s worth noting that ratings for the show were slipping even before cast member Phil Robertson started spouting his particular brand of nonsense last December. But it’s also not much of a stretch to theorize that the controversy helped turn that slippage into a full-on crash.
This is very likely a milestone: Three of the six dramas that cracked Nielsen’s top-ten entertainment shows of 2014 among viewers under 50 came from cable. The Walking Dead was tops, of course, but HBO’s Game of Thrones rocketed to No. 6 (from No. 30 last year), and FX’s American Horror Story: Freak Show landed at No. 10. Extend the list to the top 20 shows in the demo, and FX’s Sons of Anarchy (No. 14, and possibly higher once the finale is factored in) and the final few episodes of AHS: Coven (No. 19) also make the cut. Broadcast dramas still generally dominate the Nielsen charts in terms of overall audience — habits die hard among older viewers — but the younger the audience, the more likely a cable drama is to compete with fare from the big networks. This is particularly true when you look at audiences under 35 by gender. FX’s The Strain, for example, ranks behind more than 150 other TV shows in 2014 in overall viewership. But among men ages 18–34, it’s a top-40 hit. Likewise, ABC’s Pretty Little Liars, whose average 2014 audience of 3.6 million viewers puts it behind nearly 200 other shows this year, is TV’s No. 16 show with women 18–34 (and one of the 10 biggest dramas).
After years of broadcast networks making headlines for plunging Nielsen numbers, it’s now cable that is feeling the pain of audience erosion. USA Network will once again rank as the most-watched cable channel in prime time, but its average audience of 2.1 million viewers this year is down a stunning 21 percent from 2013. (One reason for the drop: Fewer reruns of Law & Order this year and more episodes of Modern Family, a strategy designed to give the network a younger, more upscale profile. USA was nonetheless still down over 10 percent with viewers under 50.) As bad as USA’s overall audience erosion was, its decline looks almost modest compared to A&E’s fortunes this year: Thanks to the aforementioned Duck dive, the network’s prime-time audience collapsed by nearly 30 percent this year and pushed the network off the list of the ten most-watched cable channels. TBS, which has yet to develop a big new comedy hit behind its The Big Bang Theory reruns, dropped 10 percent (but was still No. 1 among viewers under 50); sister net TNT declined a relatively gentle 4 percent. FX also lost a little ground, falling about 2 percent in overall audience, but its smaller rate of decline actually helped it leap ahead of A&E and Adult Swim to stand as the No. 7 cable network this year (and the No. 3 network with adults under 50, beating TNT in the demo for the first time ever). One rare growth story in 2014: HGTV, which was up about 5 percent and ended the year as a top-ten cable channel in prime time.
After a rough 2013, the Alphabet network bounced back to turn in a solid Nielsen performance — and its strength among young women continues to be a key driver of its momentum. Looking just at broadcast shows, ABC will end up with a whopping six of the ten most-watched series among adult women under 35 this year (even better than its 2013 performance). No shocker, Shonda Rhimes’s Thursday trio takes the top three spots, with newcomer How to Get Away With Murder broadcast TV’s No. 1 show in the demo, followed by Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy. Modern Family and Once Upon a Time are also in the top ten. But in a bit of an upset, The Bachelor appears poised to surge past The Voice as the No. 1 network reality show in the young female demo (though the race is close, and a strong finish to the current Voice season could allow it to slip into first by year’s end). ABC is also doing well with the littlest women: Once Upon a Time is this year’s No. 1 broadcast show among teen girls, thanks in part to this fall’s savvy Frozen story line.
There are more ways to make money in the TV business than simply getting the most number of people to watch your show. Cable figured out the more-with-less model decades ago, and networks have been playing the demo game — fewer viewers, but the “right” kind of viewers — for years, too. But being able to reach lots of people with a lot of different shows is still the goal for broadcast networks, and it’s something that CBS (and maybe only CBS) does well. Consider the list of the 100 most-watched regularly scheduled episodic broadcasts of 2014 (including weekly sports franchises but not specials or movies). CBS fills a whopping 75 positions on the list, and it does so with no fewer than ten different programs. There are numerous episodes of The Big Bang Theory and NCIS, of course. But both NCIS spinoffs make several appearances on the list, as do new shows Madam Secretary and Scorpion, Sunday stalwart 60 Minutes, Thursday Night Football, Person of Interest, and even the premiere of the short-lived drama Intelligence. By contrast, runner-up NBC, while responsible for 21 of the top 100 telecasts, only has three programs in the top 100: Sunday Night Football (14), Blacklist (5), and The Voice (2). The premiere and second episodes of How to Get Away With Murder, along with the pilot of Resurrection, account for all of ABC’s contributions to the top 100. And Fox? The January premiere of American Idol, which drew 17.7 million viewers, ends up as the No. 84 network series telecast of 2014 — and Fox’s only representation on the list.
The new host of The Tonight Show couldn’t have gotten off to a better start: Thanks to an Olympics-hyped premiere week and tons of early buzz, Fallon crushed his rivals during his first year in the host’s chair. In fact, among viewers under 50, NBC says Tonight drew better ratings than David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel combined since Fallon took over for Jay Leno in February. And in overall audience, Tonight’s Fallon-era audience average of 4.4 million nearly doubled that of runner-up Kimmel or third-place Letterman. Fallon might want to slow-jam this news while he can, however. While Tonight is still comfortably in first in all key demos, during the recent November ratings sweep, Fallon’s 1.0 rating among viewers under 50 was way down from his 2014 average of 1.4 (while Kimmel’s 0.7 rating was up from his overall 2014 score). David Letterman will also likely get at least a little bit of a bounce headed into his final weeks on TV this spring. And expect CBS to launch a giant promotional blitz on behalf of new contender Stephen Colbert.
It cannot be overstated how big animated shows are among young men: Of TV’s 15 biggest non-sports shows this year, one third were toons. Fox’s animated block dominated, with Family Guy, The Simpsons, the last episodes of American Dad!, and even Bob’s Burgers taking up four slots, and Comedy Central’s South Park ranking No. 9 overall with young guys. Go a little further down the Nielsen charts, and there’s still more evidence of dudes’ affection for animation. Dan Harmon’s Rick & Morty is barely a blip in overall audience — No. 353 in viewers — but at No. 57 with men under 35, it outperforms network stalwarts such as Survivor and American Idol in the demo. Broadcast networks these days rely on the NFL and other sports to lure male viewers, but maybe they ought to take a hint from Fox and start trying to crack the animation code.
Football is popular across all demo groups, so it’s no shock that among Latino viewers under 50, NBC and CBS’s prime-time NFL packages ranked first and second in 2014, respectively. Factor out sports, however, and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory and NBC’s The Voice finish in a virtual tie as broadcast TV’s biggest shows with young Latinos. ABC’s Modern Family and newcomer How to Get Away With Murder come in third and fourth, while Fox’s Gotham impresses with a fifth-place finish. Meanwhile, Scandal has ceded its crown as network TV’s most popular program among African-American viewers ages 18–49, but Shonda Rhimes has no reason to mourn. It’s been replaced by How to Get Away With Murder, the Pete Nowalk–created hour she produces. HTGAWM just barely outrated lead-in Scandal to claim the title; both shows outrated the NBC and CBS football franchises. Factoring out sports, ABC actually claims a whopping four of the five biggest entrainment series among younger black viewers, with newcomer black-ish in third place and Grey’s Anatomy fourth. As with Latinos, Gotham is 2013’s fifth-biggest show with African-Americans. Something else worth noting: While none of CBS’s entertainment shows crack the top five among younger black viewers, the Eye dominates further down the list, landing eight of the top 25 shows in this group (including freshman dramas Stalker and Extant). But The Big Bang Theory, despite its popularity among white and Latino audiences, is a relative dud with African-Americans under 50, drawing smaller ratings than CBS’s The Good Wife and Under the Dome.
Broadcast and cable nets are increasingly pushing viewers to catch their shows through video-on-demand platforms, mostly because VOD usually includes commercials you can’t skip (and Nielsen now counts VOD replays as part of its ratings). While there’s no national ranking for VOD views, Comcast — the nation’s biggest cable company — closely tracks how shows do on its Xfinity VOD platform. Not surprising, The Big Bang Theory ended 2014 as the most-played TV comedy on Xfinity, while HBO’s Game of Thrones and True Blood edged out AMC’s The Walking Dead in the drama category. More telling is how some generally lower-rated series ended up as VOD all-stars this year. On the comedy side, Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine landed in the top ten, as did MTV’s Awkward, TruTV’s Impractical Jokers, and HBO’s Girls. And among reality shows, while The Voice may be unbeatable on linear TV, on VOD, Oxygen’s Bad Girls Club had more plays than the NBC musical smash. The rest of the reality VOD top ten: Dance Moms, Teen Mom 2, Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, America’s Got Talent, Dancing With the Stars, Big Brother, and Pawn Stars.
It wouldn’t be a year-end ratings spectacular without a reminder to networks about why quickly pulling the plug on good shows that haven’t yet found an audience often results in even lower ratings. This year’s poster child: Fox’s Enlisted. It struggled on Fridays at the start of 2014, a victim of indifference on the part of Fox leadership at the time. As a result, it averaged a modest 3.1 million viewers the seven times it aired on that night. Fox canceled Enlisted in May and instead opted to sink millions into the expensive reality “experiment” called Utopia. It got much more promotion than Enlisted ever did, and it also ran on Fridays. The result: It averaged 2.5 million viewers, or 20 percent below what its predecessor on the night averaged.