top of page

Year in Review: Most-Watched Television Networks — Ranking 2020’s Winners and Losers

Complete Broadcast, Cable and Pay TV Ratings Ranker for 2020 in Total Viewers and Adults 18-49

Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, and Sean Hannity (Courtesy of AP)

Yes, linear TV still exists, and it’s still watched by millions of viewers. But 2020 was another tipping point for traditional television, and it’s not just because of the pandemic. What has been steady viewership erosion for broadcast and cable went into overdrive this year, despite a pandemic that should have increased or at least stabilized viewership.

Anecdotally, people did watch more TV as they stayed at home this year — but they were either watching news, or catching their favorite shows on demand.

In recent years, the joke within the TV industry was “flat is the new up” — meaning that ratings growth is so difficult that it’s a victory just to hold the status quo and not decline. But even remaining flat is nearly impossible these days, let alone just small decreases — which is why the new saying should probably be, “single-digit declines are the new up!”

But the truth is, as this bruising year comes to a close, most major broadcast, cable and pay networks suffered another round of double-digit drops. And that’s including seven days of DVR and VOD time-shifting. Of course, there are a few exceptions to the erosion this year; you’ll see them below as Variety recounts the TV winners and losers of 2020.


Cable news

While everyone else braces to see how low they can go, the three major news cablers had a glorious year. No surprise, as the election, pandemic and movement for racial justice gave audiences plenty of reason to tune in. And they did: Fox News was up 43%, MSNBC climbed 23% and CNN jumped 83%. Fox News was even a top 10 network in adults 18-49, despite its older skew, while CNN was up a whopping 95 percent in that demo. Meanwhile, CNN had its most-watched prime time ratings ever in 2020 with both total viewers and the key 25-54 news demo. Fox News, meanwhile, also had its best-ever year, becoming the first-ever cable news network to average more than 3 million viewers in primetime. On the smaller side, even tiny digital offering Newsy went from 3,000 to 8,000 viewers — which, given its tiny base, is a growth of 167%.


While the English-language broadcast networks nurse double-digit declines, and even rival Telemundo suffered major erosion in 2020, Univision was up 11% with viewers and 6% with the 18-49 crowd.


Led by the unstoppable franchise “90 Day Fiancé,” which has spawned several spinoffs, TLC did the unthinkable in 2020: It posted its most-watched year in primetime in the history of the network. That just doesn’t happen anymore. And yet, it did for TLC, which ranks No. 1 among cable networks in the key female demos including women 25-54, women 18-49 and women 18-34. “Given what the country faced in 2020, to have further grown and drawn new viewers proves we’re nourishing fans with comfort and emotion they’ve really needed at the right time,” said TLC president/general manager Howard Lee.

Classic TV networks

Are reruns the future of linear TV? Me TV is up another 7% in viewers, while INSP (which airs some originals along with its classic westerns) is up 9%. Also growing are smaller diginets with a diet of old TV, such as Grit (up 6%), Heroes and Icons (up 6%) and Family Entertainment TV (up 5%). “We have a target audience that is generally 50 and older, and in some cases, even 60 and older,” said INSP COO Dale Ardizzone. “And what we have found is that that is an audience that is a relatively underserved niche, and it is what we like to call an audience of cord cuddlers, not cord cutters.”


Pop TV

Holy “Schitt’s Creek.” The tremendous frenzy over the show’s final season not only garnered an unbelievable nine Emmys, but also helped grow the network 51% year-to-year (granted, from a super-low 138,000 to 209,000). Too bad the team that built that success is gone, and Pop is pretty much out of the originals business.


How big was the channel’s Michael Jordan docuseries “The Last Dance”? All 10 episodes made it onto the year-end top 100 ranker among adults 18-49. That was at least a bright note in a rough year for sports networks, given how many months the pandemic kept all games on hold. In the end, ESPN was down 17% — but without “The Last Dance,” it could have been much worse.

Comedy TV

The Byron Allen channel, which consists mostly of reruns of panel shows featuring comedians, is consistently the least-watched network rated by Nielsen. It maintains that distinction, but with a caveat: MTV Classic wound up not getting a rating at all. And in bigger news, Comedy TV somehow managed to bolster its miniscule rating from 1,000 to 3,000 in primetime. That’s a 200% leap.


Premium networks

Perhaps the most obvious example of the shift to digital and streaming comes from the premium services. Audiences are still watching their shows — but they’re not doing it on linear. Without “Game of Thrones,” HBO saw more than half of its adults 18-49 linear audience disappear in 2020. Starz, Showtime, Starz Encore and Cinemax were hit with huge declines as well.

Kids channels

This new generation of kids will never know what it’s like to watch their shows on a schedule. The steady decline of all kids networks went on overdrive this year, with Disney Channel (-33%), Nickelodeon (-32%), Cartoon Network (-29%), Nick Jr. (-17%), Disney Junior (-27%), Nicktoons (-42%), Teennick (-35%) all down. A few exceptions came from the small network end, with Discovery Family, Universal Kids and Baby First TV posting a touch of growth.

El Rey

Founded by Robert Rodriguez and launched at the end of 2013, El Rey hoped to capitalize on a young, multicultural demographic with programs like “From Dusk till Dawn: The Series” and “Lucha Underground.” But the network wound up getting limited traction, and distribution started to falter — including DirecTV, which dropped it at the start of the year. By fall, the network’s reach dropped to 13 million households (down from a peak of around 40 million), and Univision sold its stake. As a result, the channel was down 76% in viewership this year. El Rey later announced that it would cease operations on Dec. 31.

Below are the primetime rankers for broadcast, cable and premium cable networks in 2020, among total viewers (as well as the top 50 list in adults 18-49). Most Nielsen-rated networks can be found here, with the exception of a few channels that are not ad-supported. [For historical record, here are previous year-end network rankers: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.]



Variety's Michael Schneider contributed to this post.

SGC V2.png
bottom of page