Most-Watched Television Networks: Ranking 2021’s Winners and Losers

A tally of the year’s most-watched TV networks seems wildly incomplete in the 2020s without Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Disney Plus or HBO Max in the mix. But with no real apples-to-apples way of comparing viewership on the streaming platforms to linear consumption, we’ll continue to measure them in different ways, at least for now.

In the land of the linear, sports continue to save the day, helping stabilize viewership this year for at least two of the four major broadcast networks. On the flip side, COVID be damned, a year without a contentious political season left most of the news networks with massive declines. Double-digit dips remain the reality for most of the basic and premium networks — a trend that becomes more acute as even those networks’ owners eagerly shoo viewers away from that old-fashioned delivery system and on to their newfangled streaming services.

Here, Variety recounts who was up and who was down in 2021.


Sports Networks
Live sports were back in full force in 2021, and viewers hungry for action lapped it up — making sports networks one of the few bright spots in this year’s network tallies. ESPN led all, of course, up 11% to an average of 1.6 million viewers in primetime. Also on the rise was TNT (10%) — not a sports network per se, but clearly helped by NBA coverage and March Madness. ESPN2 jumped 48%, Fox Sports 1 was up 25%, and even the about-to-be-shuttered NBC Sports Network saw a 17% gain. The leagues’ own networks — NFL (up 32%), MLB (45%) and NBA (71%) — rose as well. Even niche pursuits gained, including Golf (+12%) and Tennis (+34%).

Here’s something you just don’t see any more: Not one, but two broadcast networks managed not to decline vs. 2020. As a matter of fact, NBC ended 2021 up 9% in total viewers and up 7% in adults 18-49, while CBS was flat in viewers and up 1% in 18-49. (These days, being flat is a tremendous win.) Once again, sports helped: CBS had the Super Bowl, while NBC aired the delayed Summer Olympics and plenty of “Sunday Night Football.” Also in broadcast, Univision (down 1% in viewers, down 3% in 18-49) and Telemundo (up 3% in viewers, down 3% in 18-49) managed to mostly hold their own.

It’s become an annual tradition to marvel at the growth of INSP. A small, independent cabler that began life as the religious PTL Network, the network later morphed into “Inspiration” before eventually settling into INSP, now with a core focus on Westerns. “We think that the Western-based and Western-adjacent content really just continues to resonate,” said INSP COO Dale Ardizzone. “Obviously the linear business is morphing and we’re all watching how and where that lands. But I think we start with being very proud that for seven consecutive years we have actually increased ratings over the previous year. And from what our research tells us, we’re one of the only networks that has had that sort of consistent growth. Believe it or not, since 2010, our household ratings are up 1,171%. Which obviously is huge.”


News and Opinion Networks
What a difference a year makes. Last year, the newsies were among the winners. This year, with no bombastic election cycle, and with COVID-19 coverage not as prevalent as it was before vaccines were developed, the major news channels and opinion networks faced deep dips in 2021. That goes for Fox News (down 34%, although still tops in cable), MSNBC (-28%) and CNN (-38%). Business channels experienced similar slumps: Fox Business Network was down 48%, while CNBC was off 13%. The one exception to this trend, apparently, is right-wing Newsmax, which increased 48% (granted, from low marks to begin with), and we could say why that might be — but, c’mon, you know whose cult-like fan base is looking for like-minded “news” content.

Network rebrands: NewsNation and GAC Family
Two of the year’s biggest brand overalls were not well received by viewers. WGN America morphed into the mostly-news-and-opinion NewsNation, and collapsed 79%, from 223,000 viewers to 46,000 in primetime. And GAC Family, which had its roots as Great American Country but more recently had been the lifestyle-oriented GAC, turned into a home for Hallmark-like general entertainment fare — and dropped 33%.

The Cowboy Channel
A bit of a mystery to this one, the network bolstered its coverage of live rodeos this year yet saw its viewership drop a dramatic 77%. It doesn’t appear as if the network lost any major distribution; perhaps the Nielsen sample simply lost several rodeo fans in 2021?

Below are the primetime rankers for broadcast, cable and premium cable networks in 2021, 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: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.]




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